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posted: 3/9/2013 4:00 AM

Adding warmth to a room with books

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  • Elizabeth Mayhew's bookshelves are a travelogue showing where her mind has wandered.

    Elizabeth Mayhew's bookshelves are a travelogue showing where her mind has wandered.
    Anne Schlechter

  • Artwork nicely complements the titles on Elizabeth Mayhew's bookshelves; photographs or ceramic objects can personalize a bookshelf.

    Artwork nicely complements the titles on Elizabeth Mayhew's bookshelves; photographs or ceramic objects can personalize a bookshelf.
    Anne Schlechter

By Elizabeth Mayhew
Special to The Washington Post

I have noticed over the years that every so often magazines (and now blogs) feature beautiful spreads of book-filled rooms, with headlines like "Living With Books" or "The Pages of Our Lives."

Usually the images feature poetic, far-off places where leather volumes fill 15-foot-tall, wood-paneled shelves, or sparse rooms with gauzy curtains have stacks of books on the floor, standing like architectural columns. As a book lover, I find these rooms transporting and inspirational but totally out of touch.

A growing number of people, I think, don't have books. After all, who wants those heavy, clunky volumes when you can store a seemingly endless library on a device that weighs less than a single paperback?

So this leads me to wonder: In a world without books, what happens to our bookshelves?

Unfortunately, bookshelves are suffering from the same fate as the television armoire -- some of us just don't need them. Instead of housing our libraries, bookshelves have become the dumping ground for tchotchkes, mail, papers, picture frames, empty vases and, on occasion, an actual book. The empty cavities attract only chaos and disorder. Of course, there are things you can do to improve your shelves' appearance in the absence of books: Fill them with smart-looking storage boxes (check out colored and patterned varieties at or, but make sure you measure the shelves before you buy), display a well-edited collection of ceramics or other objects, or use pictures, either leaning or hung over the shelf, to fill voids. Just keep in mind that unlike closets and closed cabinets, open shelves reveal everything, which means one needs to take more care in their styling.

For me, a world without actual, tangible books is a sad reality. Books give a room warmth and character (not to mention the positive effect educators say just being in the presence of books has on our kids' learning). When books are authentically collected, they highlight your interests and passions. (I am against decorators who buy books by the foot, with no interest whatsoever in the book itself other than the color of its spine.) My good friend Benjamin Wallace, author of "The Billionaire's Vinegar," once described the books on his shelf as "tombstones," each one like a postcard from a virtual literary trip he has taken. I am on his page. I look at my books in the same way that I look at my photos -- each one recalls a moment in time, a story or a place that I don't want to forget.

So although I have both a Kindle and an iPad, I still buy physical books, as does my husband. We have a lot of them. They spill over our bedside tables and coffee table, fill four walls of our foyer and line walls in each of our kids' bedrooms. Call us old-fashioned; they are the objects we can't live without.

I recently decided to repaint our bookshelves, which meant I had to remove every single volume. It was quite an endeavor, not only because my books were organized by category, but also because I had styled the shelves with objects "just so." In order to remember where everything went, I took photos of the shelves with my phone before dismantling them. Here is how I put them back:

1. Edit: Remove everything from your shelves and sort books by size and subject matter (i.e. fiction, cooking, gardening, reference). Remove and discard any ripped dust jackets (or cover them with library quality clear book covers).

2. Line 'em up: Line books up on shelves, stacking them both horizontally and vertically in a rhythmic pattern. This adds visual interest to the shelves and breaks up the monotony of rows upon rows of books.

3. Conceal: Maximize unused space with attractive boxes. Boxes allow you to neatly store anything, and their solid blocks of color break up the rows of books.

4. Embellish: Add ceramics and other objects for visual interest. Photographs or small works of art leaning against a stack of books personalize a bookshelf and prevent it from looking too staged.

• Elizabeth Mayhew, a "Today" show style expert and former magazine editor, is the author of "Flip! for Decorating."

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