Inside the Picture Perfect—and Highly Lucrative—Business of Book Styling
Chiara Dello Joio Digs into the Contradictions of Books as Décor
January 24, 2023 on lithub.com
[The next time someone asks “Have you read any good books lately?” You should answer something like “Yes, I just finished a great one!”
“What color was it?”
“Really? What shade of blue?”
“Somewhere between Robin’s Egg and Baby Blue.”
“I love viewing blue books, too. Was there type on the spine?”
“Yes, a chocolate brown, non-serif font.”
“In … ter … est … ing! What was the interior like?”
“Off-white pages with words all over them.”
You get the point. This is ridiculous. Silverback SM]
In a storied old building on the Upper West Side, the CEO of a bank lives in a freshly renovated apartment with a two-story wood paneled library holding about 2,300 books. The ceiling is eighteen feet high. There’s a large fireplace, an emerald green tufted sofa, plush armchairs, a fainting couch, ruby red carpeting and drapes, three gold-toned chandeliers, and a few depictions of the Buddha interspersed throughout. The banister encasing the second story is the same color as the light fixtures that sit above each bookcase, casting a cozy downward glow. Even those with an aversion to hard liquor might suddenly find themselves craving a scotch neat to sip while reclining with a Henry Miller novel.
One full bookcase on the upper level serves as the canvas for an image of the Chrysler Building amid the New York City skyline at night. Directly across from it, on the other side of the U-shaped second level, another bookcase of identical proportions displays Notre Dame at dusk. On the main floor, one wall of bookcases is filled with hundreds of old leather-bound hardbacks with notched spines and metallic lettering. Elsewhere, four shelves of books have nude paintings printed across the anonymous spines—soft pink flesh of women’s bodies luxuriates across them.
On the opposite wall, a depiction of Central Park stretches over another isolated shelf; I asked if it was tied to a theme, expecting that’s where one might find some classic New York novels or memoirs. Unsure what was there, the library’s owner leaned in to squint and read off the small faint titles printed at the bottom of each spine. “This is stuff like Dahl’s collected stories, Walden, Arcadia. So, it’s a little bit connected.”Social media is littered with images of bookshelves organized by hue, suggesting the works on display hold no more value than a bag of M&Ms.
The woman who owns this home commissioned Juniper Books—a company that specializes in custom residential libraries—to style and stock hers. They sourced books based on her guidelines and printed unique custom jackets to display the graphics she chose. The apartment came with the library when she bought it, and since she loves old books, it made sense to fill it up. With a small note of jealousy, I asked if she spends a lot of time reading in this literary nirvana. “Not yet. We go back and forth between the West Coast and here, and I work a lot. So no, I can’t say that I’ve sat around reading yet.”
While this library is exceptional, the practice of hiring professionals to stock your shelves (regardless of whether you plan to read) is not. Zoom bookcase backgrounds have become ubiquitous in recent years. Influencers post countless pictures of books lined up, their spines turned toward the wall so that color doesn’t disturb the aesthetic. Social media is littered with images of bookshelves organized by hue, suggesting the works on display hold no more value than a bag of M&Ms.
These carefully curated shelves are often the handy work of a professional designer or book stager who will select titles for you. More often than not, these books come across as props intended to be on camera—acting as signifiers much like a Birkin bag or an expensive watch. While those items can indicate a certain level of status and wealth, an artfully staged bookcase aims to convey something as well, although perhaps more subtly.
Books as décor seems to have reached a peak in popularity. Gloria Steinem recently had her own bookcase photographed by Max Steven Grossman, a photographer who has a book-scape series of images that sell for up to $16,000, so you can hang a picture of someone else’s books in your living room. Sarah Jessica Parker designed a wall-of-books wallpaper that features thousands of title-less anonymous spines in case you want to be really efficient. The Twitter account @BookcaseCredibility is solely dedicated to riffing on public figures who speak on TV in front of their books. Their bio reads, “What you say is not as important as the bookcase behind you.”
In the 1980s, independent shops like The Strand and Wonder Books started selling books by the foot to meet the rising demand. Many commissions are for film and TV sets, retail décor, and hotels. But since the pandemic there has been an uptick in demand for personal libraries, and the best way to expedite filling the shelves is to buy in bulk. Miguel Soto, The Strand’s books-by-the-foot Manager, said that about 80% of the jobs are for residential collections—a considerably larger portion than when he started 15 years ago.
You can order books online like floorboards, measured in any color, size, or condition. Wonder Book’s offerings include: Distressed Modern Hardbacks, Basic Black, Soft Neutrals, Arctic Blues, Burgundy Wine, Granite Greys, Fairly Distressed Vintage Leather, and Coverless Antique. For a summer home, there’s Driftwood, Seaglass, Cape Cod, and Main Cottage—four different color-scapes nearly identical, all recalling a house with an ocean view. The Autumn Hue bundle includes books in a variety of reds, oranges, and yellows. Starry Night includes mostly blue and black books with silver and gold lettering, with a sprinkling of yellow books. Titles, authors, and genres are beside the point. When you place an order, you get what you get in terms of content.
Mike Kinsey of Black Cat Books in Shelter Island told me about a client who requested exclusively black hardbacks with white lettering and white hardbacks with black lettering. Another client requested a collection of blue hardbacks—but only nautical themed texts. Soto mentioned filling a client’s lake house with exclusively vintage self-help books during the pandemic. He’s been asked to match book collections to Pantone colors and the specific shades in clients’ rugs and paintings.
Consequently, he has become intimately familiar with predicting where to find books in particular colors, as he spends most days sourcing them for clients in the 18-mile maze below his office. While speaking with him on Zoom, he easily identified a Modern Library collection of Joan Didion’s work on the shelf behind me. “If you take that out it’s going to be a clothbound red or burgundy.” (Indeed, he was right.)
Juniper Books’ custom patented dust jackets are the epitome of a personalized library. In many cases, their monochromatic dust jackets obfuscate titles and authors, so books must be pulled down to know which is which (Juniper occasionally provides a key in case someone wants to find something). They employ in-house graphic designers to create large-scale murals across hundreds of volumes.
For Juniper’s founder, Thatcher Wine, the creative potential is endless. In his and Elizabeth Lane’s guide For The Love of Books, they write that when people buy books for their home, “We combine the author and their story with who we are and our story. The combination of the author and their story plus us and our story is a new story, and it’s completely original.”It would appear undeniable then that people who don’t read are helping sustain the independent book business. So why does it feel so hard to stomach?
The idea of book styling may seem heretical to anyone who values what’s between a book’s binding more than the binding itself. Upon first discovering this industry, I was reminded of a quote from Don DeLillo: “If serious reading dwindles to near nothingness, it will probably mean that the thing we’re talking about when we use the word ‘identity’ has reached an end.” By this logic, not owning books would be favorable to purchasing them for display. And while I might agree with DeLillo, following his purist line of thought to its natural conclusion would likely harm business for sellers and publishers, and therefore writers, which wouldn’t be a solution to anything.
When I spoke with a supervisor at a popular LA independent bookstore, he said that designers regularly frequent the shop to buy thousands of books at a time for their clients. These stylists apparently favor shopping at local independents over Amazon because they want to see how the books they’re purchasing will look next to each other. He said a typical design order is in the range of 40-70 books—a staggeringly high number compared to the common reader’s purchase. “I would say that these design orders are like the bread and butter of our business. In large part, what allows us to sell individual paperbacks to customers are these design firms that buy $3,000 worth of books at any one time.”
Ashley Tisdale infamously caused a stir when she admitted to purchasing 400 books to fill her empty shelves overnight before Architectural Digest filmed her house. “Obviously, my husband’s like, ‘We should be collecting books over time and putting them in the shelves.’ And I was like, ‘No, no, no, no. Not when AD comes.’” The camera briefly zooms in on one of the shelves featuring: The Last Chance Millionaire, The Money Encyclopedia, Total Money Makeover, Marketing Aesthetics, and Potatoes Not Prozac. It’s easy (and fun) to scoff at Tisdale and her husband, composer Chris French, for essentially ending up with a shelf that resembles a first year MBA student’s reading list. But based on the average price of a hardback book, they likely spent over $9,000 at a book shop in the area.
Jessica Bowman, Managing Creative Director of books-by-the-foot at Wonder Books, explained that the volumes that wind up being sold by the foot are copies that weren’t able to sell individually in the store—they would be sent to the paper mill to be recycled into pulp unless books-by-the-foot rescued them. Essentially, they’re a last-ditch effort to let an orphaned book live as a book before being sent to the kill shelter.
It would appear undeniable then that people who don’t read are helping sustain the independent book business. So why does it feel so hard to stomach? Bibliophiles tend to take a reflexively hostile stance against the concept of using Costco’s wholesale business model to purchase literature because it feels reductive. It’s an easy practice to dismiss. Regardless, this praxis is helping keep the industry alive. Nearly everyone I spoke with was protective of their clients, and defensive of their choice to buy hundreds of books at a time—adding in that some customers even read them!
In David Lipsky’s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself there’s an exchange he has with David Foster Wallace on a flight where Foster Wallace says that his “major complaint” about the cover of Infinite Jest is that it looks too much like the safety pamphlet for American Airlines. “The cloud system, it’s almost identical.” Writers are not always involved in cover art, so it’s hard to put a finger on why a publisher’s graphic design department has created something that feels sinful to alter.
Nonetheless, the cover feels like a psychic capacitor for the book. Perhaps people deride those who buy books solely for how they look because it reminds them that despite their primary love of literature, they still appreciate a beautiful cover. It’s not of primary importance but liking how something looks in your home matters to some extent, even if it feels uncouth to acknowledge.
Looking through Juniper Books’ website, I came across a beautiful set of my favorite childhood series, Harry Potter, for $475. It includes all seven UK edition hardbacks wrapped in dust jackets that create one image across the spines—the bright red Hogwarts Express billowing against a dark grey night. I’ve had my paperback copies since I first tore through them; they’re on my bookshelf in perfectly good condition. Yet I’ve considered purchasing Juniper’s set more times than I’d like to admit. Perhaps because the “book art” would be contained to just one set of books and not the whole bookcase. Or maybe because the image across the spines is a celebration of the work within—not an obfuscation.
I don’t have room for both sets; letting go of the ones I have would mean relinquishing the pages that my hands used to barely wrap around. It would mean giving away the copies with fine white lines in the spine from when I’d have to push the weight of hundreds of pages down to read in my bedroom until dawn. Then again, investing in beautiful copies of something I cherished so deeply has started to feel commemorative in its own right.
In Dickens’s Oliver Twist, Mr. Brownlow quips, “There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.” This is certainly true. But what about the books of which the backs and covers aren’t the best part? How much are we losing by focusing on the outside rather than the inside? When I look at my own shelf, I find myself glad that my collection isn’t so perfectly constructed—that the alternative would be a façade muddling any sense of true identity. If a bookcase is meant to say something about its owner, doesn’t a styled one run the risk of saying nothing at all?
Chiara Dello Joio
Chiara Dello Joio is a freelance journalist and features writer. Based in New York, Chiara writes about culture and style. She is currently an MFA candidate at Columbia University, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic.
Your clever “product placement” of the 4 book cover images did not go unnoticed. Well done and excellent post. Reminds me of a meeting I had with Gale Publishing back in the day – what a lobby they had in the Art Deco Penobscot Building, exactly the ambience that some people now try to buy by the foot. And forgive me but once I actually asked a bookseller at Barnes & Noble for assistance finding a blue book – true story. Great thought-provoking post.