Accessorize your shelves with more than just books

Dear Gail: I just had bookcases built on each side of my fireplace where the builder had what I call “open holes.” In the past my bookcases always became junked up with just piles of books, as I have a lot. So how do I go about decorating them so they look nice? — Tony

Dear Tony: Bookcases are an excellent place to display your favorite items, including books. But don’t feel bad, as most people are unsure how to properly accessorize them, which is why they can become book storage.

I know that yours are new, but for those of you who already have bookcases filled to the brim and want a new look, let’s start by emptying them out. You want to unload from the bottom shelf up. You do this so that in case you drop anything as you’re emptying it, there will be nothing on a shelf below that can get broken. As you’re removing items, group them by category, hardback books, paperback books, frames, small accessories, large accessories, greenery … you get the idea.

With it empty, take out any of the removable shelves. Most people leave the shelves just where the manufacturer had them placed when it was delivered. By taking them out, you can look at it with a fresh pair of eyes and see other ways to arrange your accessories.

Now, shop your house and gather up anything else that you would like to use. Something that may have been hidden away or unappreciated where it currently is.

Do you have any taller accessories that may now fit with the shelves removed? Do you have any smaller pieces of art or mirrors that would add some color, life and light to the back? Any smaller accent lights that can be placed on a shelf?

Tony, since you have a lot of books, start on the bottom shelf. Place three-quarters of the books vertical with the remaining horizontal. Then, to soften the area, use a small green plant or accessory on top of the horizontal books.

If you’re not using books, start with your heaviest-looking piece. You don’t want your most delicate piece of china on the bottom, with a heavy clay vase or bowl above. What we’re trying to do is balance the weight in your bookcase from top to bottom.

Next, pull out your tall accessory or artwork and place it at eye level. You can off-center the item and set an accessory or a group of books on the other end of the shelf. If you want this to be a focal piece, center it on the shelf.

The next step is to continue to add to each shelf. On these shelves, start to zigzag the weight from shelf to shelf. Don’t completely line up items, but zigzag them from corner to corner; think of a “Z.”

Since you have a lot of books, start at the bottom and place a stack of books on the right side of the shelf. Step up to the next shelf and place a stack of books on the left side of the shelf, and continue zigzagging from side to side. You’re not filling the shelf, just placing a group of books on each side.

Again, when working with books, they do not all need to be standing up, but alternate them from vertical to horizontal. If you’re not working with a lot of books, you would be placing accessories. Zigzagging keeps your eyes moving up and down the bookcase, instead of just stopping on the shelves where items have been lined up.

Once you have your books placed, start again on the bottom and place an accessory on the other end of the shelf. You can have a group of frames, a large decorative accessory, a small piece of art or a decorative plate on a plate stand.

If your bookcase is deeper than 12 inches, place the taller pieces in the back or raise up small items with books, glass blocks or accessory risers. Incorporate greenery in with your books and accessories to soften the look.

The final step is to step back and look to see if you’ve zigzagged from corner to corner on each shelf. Have you balanced the weight of your accessories from top to bottom? Do you have some empty space between the groupings on each shelf? It’s OK to leave empty space on a shelf so the eye has someplace to rest.

When you’re done, you’ll have an attractive, interesting and decorated bookcase, no longer just book storage.

Gail Mayhugh, owner of GMJ Interiors, is a professional interior designer and an author of a book on the subject. Questions may be sent by email to Or, mail to 7380 S. Eastern Ave., No. 124-272, Las Vegas, NV 89123. Her web address is

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