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Bookshelf Styling for the Everyman

Bookshelf Styling for the Everyman

A couple of days ago, a friend wrote me with a decorating dilemma. Her problem:

“Basically, I am setting up a cafe for someone and there are 2 huge blocks of shelves. Empty shelves! There are 84 of them. I need to fill them up with pictures and information of what the company does… on a budget. Just wanted to ask you where you source your “shelf” inspiration from, so that I can get the ball rolling because right now I’m just staring at 2 blocks of empty shelves.”

Ooooohhhh, I cannot explain to y’all how much I loved this email! Not because my friend was feeling perplexed and overwhelmed…that part sucked. But by responding to her email, it meant I could pursue Pinterest with wild abandon under the guise of helping someone in need.

Umm…okay. Twist my arm.

So for an afternoon I got to “play” bookshelf designer and act like I knew what I was talking about. For the record, I am pretty certain I did not actually help her at all. But it was super fun to pretend. And I was very flattered that she even thought to ask me.

You see, I never intended to blog about bookshelf styling, because I am not even close to an expert myself. In fact, I struggle with it. I am forever admiring images like this:

Bookshelf Envy

Bookshelf Envy

I’m always wondering if I will ever be cool or design-savvy enough to create something like that in my own home. Thus, I have never really felt that I had any advice to give in the bookshelf styling arena. I mean why would you listen to me when you could enlist the advice of real designers like Emily Henderson or Nate Berkus or this lovely lady.

Then it occurred to me that maybe those people are too intimidating. Maybe their advice is too good, their décor is tooperfect or their budgets are too big. It might be like taking cooking advice from Julia Child. On second thought, that would probably be pretty awesome and result in a delicious meal. Damn. Stay with me.

Better example: it would be like taking fashion, diet or workout advice from Barbie. Like, seriously. Are these people even real? Where are the tissue boxes? Where are the cords? Where are the half-eaten apples lying around? And while we are at it, is everyone in the world a gosh darn professional photographer? Why does everything look so damn pretty? And why are theyall so pretty too?

Maybe, just maybe, I can offer up something completely different. Something completely…ordinary. And therefore catered to the everyman. The everyman being real people, with small budgets, dirty children, tissue boxes, busy lives/jobs and who don’t care enough about styling bookshelves to dedicate a whole lifetime to researching how it is done. Yeah. Maybe ordinary is my niche.

So below you will find my very ordinary advice on how to style your bookshelves. I hope I have made it clear that you might not actually want to take this advice. But in case you do, I have also set you some important homework tasks to complete along the way. If my blog-life imitates my real-life in any way, I will not actually be grading these assignments, so don’t stress out too much.

10 Easy Steps to Styling a Completely Ordinary Bookshelf

1. Pour yourself a drink.

This whole process will go a lot more smoothly and be more enjoyable if you are drunk. Or maybe just a little buzzed. Ideas happen after you have been drinking. Sometimes good, sometimes bad…but, when it comes to bookshelf styling, any idea is better than none. Also, drinking helps you keep things in perspective. This is not stressful. You are decorating a bookshelf, not facing wild boars in the foothills of the Andes*. Just go for it.

Homework: Pour yourself a glass of Pinot Grigio and take a few sips before you proceed any further. If you are real classy, like me, add 2-3 ice cubes.

If you don’t drink: Firstly, I’m sorry. Secondly, maybe just put on some wild music or add a splash of lime to your diet coke.

*I have no earthly idea if there are wild boars in the foothills of the Andes.

2. Plagiarize.

Yup, I am your teacher and I am advising you to be a copycat. You know all that talk about “finding your own personal style” and “being an individual”? I say, pshhhhh to that. Really, who has time?

Guess what? Somebody, with style, has already found your very own personal style…now, you just have to find them. This is a way easier task.

Homework: Find an inspiration picture of some shelves that you want to try to imitate. Choose something that makes your heart do a little fluttery dance but also something that looks achievable. For instance, if the bookshelf you are trying to style is white and has little separate compartments, don’t choose a rustic bookshelf with wide-open shelves as your inspiration picture. Example below.

globe gallery.jpg

Above images found here and here.

Remember, the goal is to COPY, not reinvent the wheel.

So where can you steal ideas from find inspiration? I have created a board called ‘Bookshelves’ on my Pinterest page. Start here or better yet create your own board.

3. Use Books.

This is going to sound obvious, but use books to style your shelves. Firstly, having books on your shelves makes you look smart. More importantly, books are versatile and look super cute on shelves. This makes sense considering the whole original purpose of the bookshelf was to house books.

The key thing is to arrange the books both horizontally and vertically. This way, you don’t need as many books to make the shelves feel full. Also, arranging them horizontally allows you to add other little elements of interests, like a raise-the-roof-buddha or an upside down Chinese man figurine. And who doesn’t want that?


Homework: Go around your house and gather books that are not serving an actual purpose somewhere else. Sort these either by size or color (or both). Notice any color or size themes? Play around with different arrangements and take note of what seems to be missing (for instance: coffee table sized books, blue books or books that make you seem smart).

4. Get thrifty

If you are not independently wealthy and you have many shelves to fill, you need to be thrifty. And by that I mean, you need to go to a thrift shop. Don’t worry, thrift shops aren’t just for homeless people anymore. Quite the opposite.

Thrift shops are ah-mazing. Trendy even. Songs are written about them.

For instance, think about it like this: Does anyone read actual physical books, anymore? Probably not. What do they do with them? They box ’em up and haul them off to the thrift shops. You can find books there for waaaaay cheaper. Granted they might not be books that anyone actually wants to read but WHO CARES! Nobody actually reads the books on their bookshelves. News flash: Books are for looks.

Things to look for at the thrift shop:

  • Books: look for ones that are: in good condition,hardbacks, have colorful bindings, different sizes (coffee table style books are awesome because they take up more space). You might even look for ones in a similar color-theme so you can arrange them by color later.



Knickknacks: vases, ceramic animals/figurines, plant holders, bowls etc… You want plenty of littleknickknacky things to work with because they help to fill in gaps and finish off a shelf. The mantra here is: don’t be too picky. Even if it is super ugly, which it is almost guaranteed to be, imagine what it would look like if it was spray painted white or yellow or gold. Basically, the ugliest little pig figurine can look quite cute when painted gold. You would be surprised.

gold dog.jpg

Plus, in the design world, ‘ugly’ is sorta in. It is often just regarded as ‘eclectic’ or ‘vintage’. So bring on the figurines. A gold pig all by itself? Meh. But, if you stack 3 books horizontally and then place that little gold pig on top, it will look intentional and adorable.

gold dog 2.jpg

Picture frames: Again, spray paint can do wonders to an old frame. Pick up some frames (either stand alone or hanging ones) of various sizes. You can fill them with photos, art, a favorite quote or fabric. Options are endless here.

Homework: Go to a thrift shop. Buy at least two items from each category mentioned above. Do not spend more than 15 dollars.

5. Plants

Plants are great space fillers and automatically make any space look better. If you are like me and kill plants like it is your job, invest in some easy care, low maintenance ones. Succulents are great for this.

Remember these from my shelfie post?

Remember these from my shelfie post?

Although, somehow I manage to kill those too.

Yeah...about that

Yeah...about that

Anyway, slap them in a pot (that you bought at the thrift shop for 99 cents) and call it a day.

Homework: Buy a plant. Put it in a pot. Place on shelf. Water according to instructions. In 3 weeks, when it dies, repeat steps outlined above.

6. Baskets and Boxes. Again, look in the thrift store first. I find these items to be hit or miss at thrift shops. But you can get really sweet baskets these days for pretty cheap at places like Target, Home Goods etc. And Ikea has great inexpensive storage boxes. You don’t have to put anything in them. Again they are just there to fill space. But since you are a real person and probably do have real shit to store on a shelf due to the finite space in your house, baskets and boxes are your best friends.

basket 2.jpg
basket 3.jpg
basket 4.jpg

Homework: Either scrounge up some neglected baskets and boxes around your house or go to Target. However, you are only allowed to purchase up to 40 dollars worth of basket/box items. Do you hear me? Don’t you even dare walk down that stationary aisle or even so much as glance in the direction of the kitchen ware. That is NOT in the budget. Basket. Box. Out. Basket. Box. Out.

7. Think in threes or clusters.

It always depends what you are working with, but in general, think in terms of threes. Things look best in small little collections. Like a frame, plant and stack of books.



If one item is really big you may use only one or two items. Vice versa if you have lots of small items. The goal is to try to create a balance. You want to balance “heavy” items with smaller/lighter items and balance colors as well. Notice how the above shelf staggers the pops of yellow, silver elements and natural tones?

To find that perfect balance, you have to…. (see point 8).

Homework: Once you have gathered all your materials, start to arrange them in like categories. So if you have 3 glass vases, put them all together. Or three coffee table books etc… (BTW – did you stop drinking so you could drive to Target? If so, start again. Now is when it is really important to be buzzed).

8. Fiddle around.

Your shelf will not look right the first time you try to “style it”. You have to play around with it until you get the right mix. Don’t get frustrated because you don’t get it “right” the first time. Just keep fiddling, drinking and consulting your inspiration picture.

Homework: Play with your shelves for at least 30 minutes or until you have had at least two glasses of wine. Whichever comes first.

9. Know the vibe.

I probably should have mentioned this first but you definitely want to go into styling your shelf with some notion of what mood you are trying to set or purpose it is meant to serve. These two things should really be the driving force behind all the decisions you make.

Is the vibe rustic and natural? If so, you might want to incorporate a lot of woody items, old books or muted colors.

Image found here.

Image found here.

Are you going for quirky and vintage? If so, knickknack it up and create some silly, funny frameable frart.

Image found here.

Image found here.

Are you going for cheerful and happy? Incorporate vibrant colors like pink, yellow and turquoise.

Image found here

Image found here

Again, this is where starting with an inspiration image is super helpful. The vision is the overall hardest part. Once you have that, let that guide what you purchase or what color you eventually spray paint your pig.

Homework: Write down one word that describes the vibe you are going for. It could be anything from ‘functional’ to ‘seaside’ to ‘pretty’. Before you purchase anything, ask yourself, “Does this item match my vibe?”. If yes, purchase it and don’t look back. If not, run. You are officially off-task.

10. Consult the experts.

I think I made this abundantly clear, but I am not an expert. However, a lot of people are. If you want to take your bookshelf styling to the next level, pick the brains of the real experts.

Homework: Read thisthis and this.

Okay. Class dismissed. If you haven’t already, you should probably stop drinking now.

And while I am neither qualified or motivated enough to formally assess your work…I would LOVE to see the finished product. So if you feel so inclined, email me (or facebook or Instagram me) if you want to share! Bonus points if you share a good before and after shot.

You can do it! I believe in you!

So That Happened.

So That Happened.

Nursery Update - Part I

Nursery Update - Part I