Susan Yeley Interiors
Life is too short not to love your home.

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Books and Their Shelves: A Love Affair

I have had a love of chock-full bookshelves since I was a little girl.  My parents are Readers. Stacks of New Yorkers used to clutter the top of the old wood stove in our kitchen.  When they built the house (coming up on 40 years ago now), my parents built in bookshelves going up all three levels of stairs.  

A sampling of my parents' bookshelves. (I asked my dad to send me some pictures.)  Note the skinny one on the stair landing above the laundry shoot. This pre-staging generation believes staunchly in just putting books on the shelves, all lined up vertically. This is known as old school charm. :)

My dad categorizes but doesn't alphabetize: cookbooks; books on Buddhism, Shinto-ism, Christianity, Judaism; Agatha Christie novels; how to raise poultry. My mom funds my Amazon Prime account, so I get all her purchase confirmations, inadvertently staying abreast of what she's reading: Barbara Brown Taylor, Mary Oliver. Even now, long after I quit my grad-school part-time job at the Seminary Coop Bookstore (sadly no longer located in the labyrinthine church basement where it used to be), they swing by Hyde Park any time they go to Chicago and stay for an hour or two browsing (and yes, buying).  

Now, in my own house and studio, as piles of books and magazines accumulate on end tables and nightstands (and not just mine: my kids'!), file cabinets and the kitchen bar, I don't hurry to put them away.  

Side note: RIP white vase. That's what football in the house will get you. 

My father-in-law loves to get me magazines.  I love to receive them.   I really only have time to read them at his house, but they make lovely piles at my house.

Luckily, I'm a decorator in a college town. People have books - and not books they just bought for show. I love this about my clients. 

Lots of poetry books here. I love this house, and I loved getting to peruse all the books while we staged the shelves: Anne Frank and Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf, oh my! (Nb. New sofa still to come!)

This client needed warmth and a place for her books. Come on! This can't possibly count as a job! It's too fun. It's not fair. A few months and a great contractor later, this before:

was transformed.

This is us considering three pendants rather than one (i.e., three canopies rather than one with three lights).  No ability to wire inside the ceiling here; Eric Hanson did a great job of camouflaging the install. Though a single canopy is ideal (and what the client ultimately chose), sometimes three lights are more cost-efficient.  

What we don't want: pendants whacking you in the head when you sit down.

We value engineered to make this transformation possible.  This asymmetrical design was our first beautiful go, but twice as expensive as what we ended up building.

They even look good pre-staging.  That's because this home owner loves her books. It's just clear.

Here's the Executive Summary of Things You Must Do to have great bookshelves.

  1. Read. You are not allowed to have fake books on your shelves. Sorry. But magazines make lovely stacks! Think of Dwell and National Geographic and the New Yorker. Beautiful covers, interesting reading. Whatever it is you love, a collection has to be authentic, or it will feel, well, inauthentic.
  2. Create intentional space for your reading material. Whether it's built-in or simply painting and wall-papering the back of an existing shelf. Museums worry about artifacts' display as much as they worry about the artifacts. When your kid does a science project, half the effort of the thing goes into the poster. Presentation matters.
  3. Arrange. We live in the glorious Age of Pinterest, kids. Spend five minutes (put a timer on or you'll get sucked in and forget to feed your offspring) and get yourself a good image you can use as a recipe for shelf staging. Alternatively, hire SYI. We are unashamed and maybe a bit pushy (but lovingly so) about staging bookshelves. A friend (mind you, a good friend) recently left me in her living room for a few minutes while she went to deal with children or pee or something, and I organized her little bookshelf. It looks great. She appreciated it (she said).

Another great project we did for people who read.  

Design by SYI; cabinetry by Plum Creek; photography by Ann Schertz.

Simple Ikea shelves to start a kid out right.  Thanks, Sam Dennis, for mounting them just like we said! 

A built-in makes a place feel grown-up and permanent.

Design: SYI. Cabinetry: Kitchens & Interiors. Photo: Ann Shertz.

Harry Potter deserves a home.

Painted wallpaper lines the back of this shelf and makes such a difference in this room.  Final photography of this house coming this winter: can't wait.

That's it! The moral: Display your books. Forget Kindles. And follow me on goodreads* so I can add your suggestions to this pile on my nightstand. 

The current in-progress stack on my nightstand. Do not let it overwhelm you. And if one of these books is on loan from you, thank you! Someday I may return it.

*Do you like my goodreads profile pic from, like, 1999?