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DECOR ADVICE: Leave your book mark

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Here are some clever ways to display your volumes and create a comfy space for reading when space is tight and the budget is tighter

Cruise Instagram or Pinterest and you’ll find numerous examples of warm, cushy reading areas decked out with twinkling string lights and endless built-in shelves. How do you evoke the feeling of having your own library in a small space with a small budget? We surveyed some experts for advice.

The books

Before she starts any decorating project, designer Tara Seawright asks clients to cut their collections. To help them decide what stays and what goes, she suggests that they think about each volume’s day-to-day use and why they’re buying and acquiring books in the first place.

“The whole idea of books has really changed and things are edited,” she says, especially in places where space is at a premium. “Books have become more like a resource library and people tend to keep books which are more visually arresting.”

Other questions to consider: Do you turn to a physical dictionary to look up words or are you using an app? Do you have a favourite cookbook or are you finding recipes online? Do you like to re-read your favourite books? Are there books that are personally meaningful to you? Do they help you with hobbies, work or school? When you’re finished, you’ll have a curated collection that reflects your passions and interests without cluttering your space, Seawright says.

The cases

Don’t feel pressure to stick to petite furniture just because you’re furnishing a small space. “People tend to get a few small bookshelves in a small space and keep them all a manageable height, about 1m tall, but if you get a taller bookshelf that goes as close as you can to the ceiling, it makes a space feel much bigger than a lot of little shelves everywhere,” says Laurie Gillman, a US bookshop owner, who has a background in interior design.

She recommends picking a larger piece for your main book storage and supplementing with smaller options as needed.

“Having something that’s bigger somehow makes the space feel more put together and inviting,” she says.

Hanna Hollenbach, a 20-year-old student who documents her book collection on Instagram (@hannasbookhaven), stores most of her books on two simple bookcases flanking two large windows in the living room of her one-bedroom apartment. She also uses a rolling utility cart with three compartments.

To add interest, she frequently switches books into different configurations. She also decorates her shelves with “book breaks” – signs, candles and figurines to infuse personality into the display.

Gillman uses several bookcases in her shop, along with some more statement-making pieces in bright colours or chrome.

Picture: Panos Sakalakis

The options

These are limitless when it comes to storing and decorating with books, even if you lack space. Think about nooks and crannies or those spots that might not normally be used, such as above a door frame or under a staircase. If you have high kitchen cabinets in your kitchen that aren’t seeing a lot of use, Seawright suggested taking the doors off the highest row and displaying books there.

She suggests putting shelves directly on the wall. If you do so, she recommends picking shelves that match the colour of the walls and have an outside edge to prevent books from sliding and falling. Be careful not to hang shelves in places that would impede opening doors or windows.

Or, don’t use storage at all. As long as they’re not in the way, piles of books on the floor or under windowsills can look artful and interesting.

The rest

You don’t need a window seat or a wood-panelled study to create a cosy reading spot. According to both Seawright and Gillman, the essentials are a comfy seat, good lighting and a place to set down a drink. If you read in coffee shops or libraries, “start noticing when you stay for a long time in a place and try to duplicate that in your own home”, Seawright says.

A supportive seat is important, because you won’t use the space if you can’t be comfortable there for a while, Seawright says. She suggests pairing it with a cushioned ottoman. “Pick something comfortable where you can put your feet that’s not a stool,” she says. Pillows and throws are inexpensive ways to add more softness.

A place to set a drink, your phone or a small stack of books is essential. Gillman uses several nested tables in the shop so she can have extra space to display books when she has more inventory during busy seasons, but anyone could apply this idea to their own space.

Adequate lighting is key for good reading and the dark basement space in her shop presented challenges for Gillman which she solved with layered lighting. In addition to removing the bulbs from many of the pre-installed fluorescent lighting fixtures, Gillman picked table lamps with shades to concentrate diffused light in the shop’s larger seating area. She says light should be about eye level when you’re sitting.

Seawright suggests investing in a dimmer switch to control the mood and to choose bulbs that don’t have a blue tint to create warmth and cosiness.

You could also go basic. “You could create a cosy book nook with some floor cushions, a light and maybe some milk crates to hold the books,” Gillman says. “It doesn’t have to be the most beautiful or most expensive.”


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