Style: Secrets of styling a bookcase

Mary Carol Garrity

I would be lost without bookcases. Literally. Because all of Dan’s books, enough to keep a small village reading for decades, would bury me. And figuratively. Because I have found that bookcases are one of the most essential pieces of furniture ever made. They are not only arresting to look at, adding much-needed bulk and beauty to a space, they are also amazing versatile. Bookcases can be used in just about every room in your home to add charm as they artfully collect all your stuff in one well-organized spot.

Struggling with how to make the bookcases in your home look their absolute best? Here are four questions to ask yourself as you style these ready-made stages:

Where is it located?

This may sound like a strange question, but where you put your bookcase will have a big bearing on what you put inside your bookcase. My bathroom at the cottage is snug and doesn’t have cabinets or closets, so I had to figure out a way to store all my stuff. Bookcases came to the rescue, giving me a super-efficient way to not only house necessities, like towels and toiletries, but to turn them into stunning little displays that add to the room’s personality.

Don’t be fooled by the prefix “book.” Your bookcases don’t have to have one single tome on their shelves. In fact, I worked with a customer who wanted to show off her collection of soup tureens. Instead of a traditional china hutch or buffet, we placed a bookcase in her dining room and filled the shelves with a dramatic display that showed off her collection.

How will it be used?

My all-time favorite way to use bookcases is to see them as part library shelf, part display shelf. We like to mix accents, like pottery, seasonal greens and artwork, with stacks of books. Have a small piece of artwork you love? Prop it in an easel on a shelf.

When picking interesting items to weave in and out of the books, think about creating a rotating display that highlights pieces from one of your collections. Whether you collect figurines or old cameras or vintage dishes, work in just a few pieces at a time so the display isn’t overwhelming.

We also love to help families and grandparents design fun and functional rooms for kiddos. An essential is a good bookcase that helps corral toys, books and clothing. (Be sure to always anchor a bookcase to the wall for safety.)

Putting personal stamp on display?

My favorite bookcase displays are like a window into your heart. When selecting what should go on your selves, pick a variety of personal treasures that help tell the story of your life. Work in snapshots of those you hold dear, mementos from a special vacation, family heirlooms, books that reflect your hobbies or interests. When I visit people’s homes, the bookcases I gravitate to are the ones that show the soul of the family that lives there.

To find interesting artifacts for your shelves, go through your cabinets and closets, opening boxes of mementos hidden away in their basements, and pull out things that are meaningful to you. To make it more fun, invite a friend to join you. Our friends sometimes are able to see our things with new eyes and show us just how cool they are.

What balance is right?

I’d love to pass on 3 tips or 4 steps for styling the perfect bookcase display, but I can’t. I don’t think great bookcase designs work that way. They should be individual and organic, reflecting your bliss, not a designer’s checklist.

This column was adapted from Mary Carol Garrity's blog at