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Shelf Life: Bookcase Solutions

Source: Martha Stewart Living, May 2005


Many people acquire books steadily throughout their lives but rarely throw any away -- it feels too much like discarding a part of oneself. Housing those books stylishly and thoughtfully, therefore -- making it possible to enjoy the books as well as the rooms they occupy -- becomes a necessity.

Here, we show how bookcases designed with the uses, colors, and decorations of a room in mind can seem woven into the very fabric of a home. By adding shelves or embellishing existing ones in a living room, family room, bedroom, and home office, we've made each space more practical, elegant, and welcoming. Choose the approach that works for you.

Book-Keeping Basics

Most books are sturdy and resilient if handled with reasonable care. Never pull a book from a shelf by its spine. Don't pack books tightly onto shelves, either. Stacks shouldn't be too high, and books in them should be rotated frequently. Large books are best stored horizontally on shelves to reduce stress on their spines. Be careful with dust jackets, which add value to books; remove them when reading, and protect those of fragile or valuable books with clear plastic or acid-free glassine covers.

For easy access, most units are built no higher than 84 inches, with the top shelf at 72 to 78 inches. If you go higher, you may need a library ladder or stool. Shelf depth is typically 12 inches; 8 inches is fine for most paperbacks, unless they're shelved two deep. Space shelves 10 to 12 inches apart, with more room between lower shelves to avoid top-heaviness. It's important to take weight-bearing ability into account when building shelves. (This varies by shelf material, thickness, and supports used, so discuss options for your collection with your carpenter.)

Enhance the Ordinary

With a little doctoring, unfinished bookcases from a furniture store can take on a built-in look, and add architectural interest to a room. We dressed up three units with crown molding and platform bases, then painted them moleskin gray. Framed photos and bibelots form a library of objects that mingles with the books.

Think Beyond the Shelf

A small collection of fine books, stacked on a wheeled piece of furniture such as a mahogany end table, can become a portable library -- no construction required. It is charmingly decorative, and it can be moved about easily whenever you're in the mood for a new furniture arrangement. A slipper chair makes a comfortable perch for selecting and reading books.

Double Your Space

In a rustic family room, built-in bookcases hold art books, children's books, and novels -- a whole family's worth of interests. To maximize storage, a 4-inch-high, 5-inch-deep wooden step was built; the shelf holds two rows of books, and all are visible. The tilted top shelves display covers; the molding lip supporting the books matches molding on the middle shelf. The inside of shelves can be boldly painted or wallpapered; only a fraction of color is seen. Ours are lined in colonial-blue book cloth, found in bookbinding supply stores.

Celebrate a Classic Look

Built-in bookshelves don't always work with a room's decor and tenor. For our home office, painted shelves were replaced with 3/4-inch stained walnut plywood with a 1-inch solid walnut edge. The shelves harmonize beautifully with the mahogany desk, encyclopedias, and the English pillar lamp with a black paper shade.

Hang Up Your Collection

For someone who saves magazines but doesn't want clutter, hanging boxes are a chic, contemporary, and calming solution. These were custom-made from medium-density fiberboard and painted sage green. A backing on each box, painted to match the walls, blends in but allows for sturdy hanging hardware.

Plan a Custom Library

For an insatiable reader who enjoys being surrounded by books, a custom home library is ideal. In the serene, contemporary New York City apartment of Martha's daughter, Alexis, a functional home office conjoins a roomy library. In the office, open shelves contain binders, magazine holders, and document boxes, with stacked printer paper in the smallest cubbies; built-in deep drawers yield storage below. Against the library's gray color scheme, books read as a wonderful, random tapestry of colors. A flat-screen television is mounted in its own compartment, set back from the plane of the books. Black stereo speakers fit snugly and nearly disappear.

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