What To Do With My Bookshelves


My father was a writer. And he did much of his writing in the summer, from a cottage on this very remote lake in Ontario.  There was no road, plumbing or electricity, and as a child we spent three months up there every year - catching fish and hunting for mushrooms and drinking the water out of the lake.

He converted one of the outbuildings (an icehouse, he said it was) to his study, and somehow he filled one whole wall with books – which was no small effort when everything came in by boat. At dawn he would rise and he wrote until noon, then took a nap, and then rejoined the family.  My memories of sneaking in there are flavored with the taste of the forbidden fruit.  I didn’t have the nerve to stay long – but would stand close to the door and inhale it all.

It smelled of musty books and cigarettes and pine and of my Dad too I guess.  On his desk there were scraps of his scrawled words on yellow legal pad strips that he would use to edit his writing – inserting here or deleting there.  I didn’t understand it, but I could feel what this space meant to him.

So when clients or friends ask me what they should put on their bookshelves? Well, automatically I think: books of course. Is that you?  Are your bookshelves packed with books that you love and that you want to have near you, just like good friends?  Then stop right here.  All you have to do is make sure they are dusted and standing up close to the fronts of the shelves like good little soldiers. And it’s perfect.

Don’t overthink it.  But perhaps some of you find that your open shelving tends to collect the dribs and drabs of your daily life. Or maybe there are some books there, but they are random paperbacks that seem to have multiplied over the years. Or perhaps (just as common) your shelves remain almost empty and seem to yell out as you walk by, “See this???  This here is a design FAIL!!” Well then, yes, let’s reevaluate that space.

I’ve stumbled upon a few design websites that are actually selling books by color. These folks collect old books, strip them of their dust jackets and sell them according to the colors of their spine with no regard to topic or content.  I’m both horrified and intrigued.

On the one hand, I was brought up to revere the written word so part of me can’t imagine a more ridiculous idea. But on the other hand, they're using the books in a way that sort of transcends their original purpose. They are being treated more like a design element and reduced to just their color – and that idea sort of intrigues me.

But back to what goes on your shelving. My first suggestion would be to display a passion there. Lots of us have them without even realizing. Maybe it’s driftwood from the beach, or jars of sea glass, or in my case an odd collection of battered bowling pins.

But for you it could be old metal cars you unearthed from your mom’s house, or a ceramic collection of your kids elementary school artwork, or old clocks, vintage beach pails, antique gardening tools, cake plates, a collection of all your old iPhones. Really anything. 

My second line of advice is for those of you that declare, “Yeaaaah…. I don’t really have any passions to display.” (And don’t worry, there are plenty of you.) That's where you need to start thinking of a common design element. For example, maybe on your shelves you want to have a few books (some stacked and some vertical,) and then a cluster of photos or a piece of art. You’ll intersperse that with a common design element which will bring unity to your display.  Like what?  Well, I’ve done it before with white ceramic bowls and vases of all shapes and sizes.  One trip to Sal’s (as my thrifting kids call The Salvation Army) and you may have all you need.  You can also do it with color – and go ahead and be bold. Think of your shelves with everything teal. Yes, get those colored books with the teal spines.  Add in some teal pottery, teal picture frames, a teal boccie ball, a 1950’s fan with a teal base, old teal mason jars.  Anything will work because your unifying theme is color.  

And how to display all this attractively? Well, it’s a bit of trial and error so be patient. But first, remove everything from your shelves and collect your items of varying sizes.

Next think about groupings of odd numbered items. (Groups of 3 or 5 mostly.) Then once you are done clustering and stacking, step back and consider the way those groups line up vertically. They shouldn’t create vertical rows. Stagger them instead. Collect a few “inspiration photos” to guide you along the way, they can really help.

What next? Make a cup of tea and enjoy. And be smug with the satisfaction of having silenced that rude bookcase that used to yell. Who’s the design guru now? You are, of course.  

Jennifer Coles is a local interior designer. Her instagramis: @coles_color_and_design. Her website is: colescoloranddesign.com

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