On the shelf: Shelving solutions to make your books look their best

Reading room: Specialist finishes like this using the Railings range from Farrow & Ball give book ca

Reading room: Specialist finishes like this using the Railings range from Farrow & Ball give book cases a traditional feel - Credit: Archant

Books are a big deal to many of us, and the way we display them can have a huge impact on our interiors. Richard Burton spoke to a St Albans-based shelving expert to find out more.

Based in St Albans, ON&ON offer a huge range of shelving solutions. Picture: ON&ON

Based in St Albans, ON&ON offer a huge range of shelving solutions. Picture: ON&ON - Credit: Archant

I’ve never owned as many books as Ian Fleming but I’ve collected a few more than Marilyn Monroe. And while I’ve obviously not written as many books as him, I’ve probably read a few more than her.

All a bit petty, perhaps, but that’s the thing about us bibliophiles. We can get a bit competitive. My shelves are better stocked than yours, that sort of thing.

A friend who grew up in the USSR told me how her family would collect old copies of Pravda because recycling was rewarded in books, something they couldn’t otherwise buy. So a fullish bookcase was a trophy cabinet for social responsibility.

My problem was, I ran out of space for them a while ago. The biggest library I ever had – the last of three I managed to create in whatever space the house of the moment would allow – showcased a fair few hundred while the downstairs cloakroom took 80-odd more and the basement games room twice that amount again.

Faking it: You don'’t have to own a library to be surrounded by books. This wallpaper from Decoville

Faking it: You don'’t have to own a library to be surrounded by books. This wallpaper from Decoville is printed in eco-friendly ink - Credit: Archant

Then came another house move and most had to go into storage again, like beloved pets in quarantine, pending yet another room stripped bare ready for shelving fit for a carefully curated collection of hard and soft-backed, hand and machine-bound volumes amassed over years.

I’m lucky to have got my hands on a fair few antiquarian ones, and, like many who’ve spent half their lives in national newspaper offices, a lot of the posh, pricey, coffee-table ones publishers send for review and literary editors later flog off for a few quid for charity.

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All of which meant serious –and, admittedly, quite indulgent – hours working out how to theme them for best effect. Long before Google rendered many of them redundant, I had at one stage 35 word-nerd volumes from everyone from Fowler to Amis to Bryson to Waterhouse, sitting above the complete works of Byron, Dickens and Defoe.

I strung shelves – 14 of them – between deep alcoves either side of the fireplace. I’d cut them from MDF, rag-rolled them to bring out the mottled old-wood look and matched them with an architrave surround carved out of a few lengths of classic moulding from B&Q and mitred with a Morso picture frame cutter.

They looked old and classic and guests used to ask if the “lovely cabinets” were original.

That was because you never really saw much of them, aside from the facing edges and the odd hint of the red-painted wall behind. The point was, they were there to store and display books. A purely supporting role, you might say.

And, unlike many of those who advise otherwise, they held only books. No spaces for little plants, photo frames or figurines; no souvenirs haggled from Egyptian markets or nick-nacks from granny’s spare room; classic, vintage or otherwise. Nothing to “break up” the rows of books, except more books, arranged by either genre, type or height.

And it wasn’t just indulgence. There have been many studies linking the sheer presence of books to literacy. One of the latest, from the Australian National University suggested that homes with large libraries can arm children with skills that persist into adulthood.

The study, published in Social Science Research a few months ago measured proficiency in English, maths and IT in 160,000 people from 31 countries, and found that those brought up surrounded by books scored higher in all three.

The effects were most marked in literacy, as you’d imagine. Growing up with few books in the home resulted in below average levels, compared to those surrounded by 80-odd, a trend that continued to improve until libraries reached about 350, at which point the literacy rates levelled off.

The celebrated statistician and author Nassim Nicholas Taleb went as far as to suggest that a private library is more of an ever-expanding research tool than “an ego-boosting appendage”.

“Read books are far less valuable than unread ones” he wrote. “You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books.”

Recently, I’ve been warmed to find more and more books on more and more shelves in many homes I’ve visited, both socially and professionally.

Lest that was just my wishful thinking, I asked Tim Pope of St Albans-based shelving specialists On&On Creative Systems, who agreed. Not only has he seen a growing demand for storage for books but he thinks that people’s perception of them and the way they are displayed is changing.

He cites the fact that sales of ebooks have been falling since 2017, a period that has also seen the rise of the so-called #shelfie craze on Instagram, always a good trend indicator. I follow #shelfjoy incidentally and many of their posts make me hanker to get mine out of storage.

And he points out that reading a real book is often seen as a way to escape screens for those who spend their working lives staring at them – and publishers and bookshops have been working harder to compete with ebooks by improving the quality, experience and content.

“Having less space is changing how we think. It means we have to think a bit further or more frequently about what to keep or throw away. You’re more likely to keep the things you really treasure.”

And the influence of author and Netflix tidiness guru Marie Kondo is also having an effect, he thinks, making people more selective about what they put on their shelves and, unlike me, thinking in more multi-functional ways.

“Her books teach you how to organise your home, removing the things you don’t love but taking care of and enjoying all the things that you are left with.

“We see less of a need for walls of books on their own. People are now using their spaces for multiple functions or are just more open plan, so rooms will have more than one purpose. People will eat in, read in, watch TV in, play in, even cook in the same space, for example.

“We seem to be seeing more shelving or shelving systems used to combine several functions within a space, such as a TV wall and bookcase, dressing table and book area, kitchen utensils and kitchen books, home office and library.”

Books, he says, can be used to personalise and bring their own identity into a space: “Open shelving and long shelves especially give customers more freedom to use their space how they want or need, it gives them greater flexibility and allows for more adjustment. They can position what they want wherever they want.

“I think people are learning to love books again. Many have attempted to make modern contemporary interior spaces and then realised after living in them, something is missing. They have realised that books are not only good for reading but are great at adding more personality and interest into a space.

“They start with a minimal approach, and like with a blank canvas, they start slowly adding layers into it. One of the final layers is how they design their books and shelves into their space. Not all our customers take this approach. It is different if they are trained in design or already have hundreds of books but it’s an approach that we often see when we are helping customers design a shelving system.”