10 Tips for Shelf Styling with Lots of Books

10 Tips for Shelf Styling with Lots of Books - roomfortuesday.comAfter revealing our formal living room, I received a bunch of questions in regards to our built-ins… specifically- styling with lots of books. This time around I went heavy on the books because, after all- it is a bookcase and that’s what it’s used for (Emmett and I both really enjoy reading). However, when styling with bunches of books, you’ll likely encounter challenges. It’s not quite as straightforward as typical shelf styling (with objects). I’m sharing 10 tips to make your bookcases or built-ins look collected, curated, and intentional… as opposed to chaotic and non-cohesive. Click through for the post! 

#1 // Source Books on a Budget

10 Tips for Shelf Styling with Lots of Books - roomfortuesday.comWhile I have a pretty large, existing collection of books, I still needed to buy more to fill this massive built-in. I always underestimate the amount of books I’ll need to fill shelves. It takes a LOT. My favorite place to buy books that fit our budget is the thrift store. 90% of my books cost under $4.

Thrifting books can be a bit time consuming, but you’ll end up saving lots of money. I look for a few different things when shopping for books- color, subject matter, and size. Try to find subject matter that is interesting to you, things you’d actually read or discussion points you’re passionate about… books you’d actually enjoy having in your home. I try not to buy just to buy.  I also like to mix in a few more expensive books on topics I’m passionate about (mostly design).

#2 // Remove the Jackets

10 Tips for Shelf Styling with Lots of Books - roomfortuesday.comI’m not a fan of book jackets. They’re typically ugly, get in the way, and if they’re thrifted books- they kind of gross me out and can look pretty worn. Before I do any shelf styling, I remove and recycle all of the book jackets.

#3 // Stick to a Consistent Color Palette (Remove Anomalies)

10 Tips for Shelf Styling with Lots of Books - roomfortuesday.comWhen I’m shopping for books, I try to keep color in mind. That’s not to say I stick to 3-4 colors… I buy a bunch of different colors, but am careful to avoid any extreme anomalies (neon pink, bright green, sunshine yellow, etc). Anything that will drastically stand out from the rest of my collection, I leave behind. That’s not to say I don’t own some bright books- I just keep those organized in a drawer or cabinet, out of sight. Sticking to a unified palette will make your built-ins feel more curated and will make shelf styling easier. In my case, I have a lot of black, green, blue, gray, mustard, burgundy, brown, beige, etc. It’s a vast color palette, but I’m intentional in leaving out extremely saturated hues.

Once you start styling, be sure to mix a variety of colors throughout. For example, I wouldn’t group all of my blue books on one side of the built-in. Try to scatter blue books throughout… that way there isn’t a strong concentrated color field in one area. You’ll want the built-in or bookcase to read as a single unit, in terms of color.

#4 // Get Creative with Stacking

10 Tips for Shelf Styling with Lots of Books - roomfortuesday.comRather than styling your shelves with standard, straight lines of books, don’t be afraid to stack them. In an effort to fit more books onto my tall shelves, I stacked books in a few different ways… even on top of other books. I also think this makes your shelving look more interesting and textural. Stack them vertically, horizontally, in a tapered pile, or on top of another stack… just play around with it until it feels balanced.

#5 // Group by Scale and Book Height

10 Tips for Shelf Styling with Lots of Books - roomfortuesday.comAnother way I make shelf styling easier, is by sorting the books by scale and height. Books come in a few different standard sizes. I sort them into three different piles: small, medium, and large. In the above image, you’ll see the taller books to the left, and the shorter books on the righthand side. By grouping books together by height, it makes stacking objects or more books on top of a row much easier. It also looks neat and tidy!

#6 // Use Bookends

10 Tips for Shelf Styling with Lots of Books - roomfortuesday.comBookends are a great way to keep your books in place after styling them. Toppled books aren’t a good look (they feel messy and chaotic), so using bookends or heavy objects to keep them upright is a must.

#7 // Fill Negative Space with Art

10 Tips for Shelf Styling with Lots of Books - roomfortuesday.comGiven I was going for a “full” look for our living room built-in, negative space was not my friend. After running out of books, I relied on small works of art to fill awkward holes and negative space.

#8 // Keep Your Favorite Titles Accessible

10 Tips for Shelf Styling with Lots of Books - roomfortuesday.comSince Emmett and I read (these books aren’t just for decor)… I also had to keep function in mind. All of our shelves are fairly accessible, but if you have a super tall bookcase, be sure to keep reaching height in mind. For easy access, I kept our favorite titles or books we refer to often, at an easy reaching level.

#9 // Mix in Unique Objects & Artifacts

10 Tips for Shelf Styling with Lots of Books - roomfortuesday.comTo make your shelves feel even more curated and interesting, I recommend mixing in unique objects and artifacts. Emmett and I like to collect objects from our travels, vintage pieces, and other treasures that are special to us. Displaying them in the built-in is a great way to share our collection and look at the objects that make us smile on a daily basis. I mixed in things like pottery, art, artifacts, sculptures, vases, etc.

#10 // Flip the Spine for Texture and Better Color Balance

10 Tips for Shelf Styling with Lots of Books - roomfortuesday.comLast, but certainly not least, I’ll flip some of the spines inward toward the back of the shelf, in an effort to balance color and texture. I have a lot of books with black & blue spines and my shelves were feeling pretty dark and ominous. It just took flipping a few to lighten up the entire built-in. I try to be selective with this and flip books that we have already read or won’t refer to again (for convenience). This is actually a controversial styling move, but it’s one that I like… and it works for our household.

10 Tips for Shelf Styling with Lots of Books - roomfortuesday.comThere you have it… 10 of my top shelf styling tips that I hope are helpful if you’re also planning to go “heavy on the books”. It’s a look I really like, think is functional, and makes the most of beautiful built-ins. If you’re interested in making your own built-ins, check out this DIY we shared a couple years ago. This is the same process we used to construct the bookcase in our formal living room. If you’re curious how I installed grasscloth wallpaper on the back of the shelves, this is the DIY post you’ll want to read.

As always, I love hearing your thoughts in the comment section below! Please let me know if you have any questions or other tips I should add.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  1. Smart tips obviously because your built-ins look A+! I’m glad you mentioned getting rid of the jackets; I find them annoying, but I always felt I should keep them intact. Even though I love reading, I’ve never been one to keep many books, but I love reading the titles on other people’s shelves! It feels so revealing. In fact, before you explained turning the spines around for aesthetic reasons, I thought maybe those were “embarrassing” titles. Snort. I do love thrifting for books; some older volumes, especially, can be really beautifully bound. And in this digital age, seeing actual books is comforting…maybe it’s time for a small bookshelf in my life. 💖📚

    1. Thanks Peggi! I’m not gonna lie, in addition to aesthetic purposes, there are a few titles I flipped around intentionally (lol!). I didn’t know how many readers would appreciate vulgar language or seeing books like “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck”… obviously I’m still giving a F*ck over here. The book didn’t work. Hahaha!!xo

  2. I so appreciate seeing bookshelves filled with books instead of tchotkes, although some of those are fun too. I love the way yours turned out.

    In my experience, the preference for jackets vs. no jackets seems to be linked to individual color tolerance. If you are a color minimalist = no jackets. If you enjoy color = keep the jackets. I’m in the pro-jackets camp. I love the way all that color looks on bookshelves.

    Also, as a former book editor for 13 years, I know the time, energy, discussions, and tremendous talent that goes into creating book jackets (it’s SO much more than anyone would ever imagine), and I think many are quite beautiful—this does vary be genre. I can’t bear to throw them away unless they are just destroyed.

    1. Thanks Rachel! Great point on the jackets- they can definitely bring more color to your shelves. I also appreciate the graphics and jackets, but even more so the quality of what is underneath: book binding, material used on the book (linen, etc), embossed type, and typography. Can you tell I have a degree in graphic design? Haha! I’m a nerd for those sort of things too :) xo

  3. Thank you for this, it is so timely as I’m about to style my built ins! What would you do about a series or collection of books (we don’t really plan on reading them anytime soon)? Would you keep them together or sprinkle them around?

    1. Yay!! I love hearing that, Simone. Great question on the series… I always keep a series or collection together. No need to sprinkle them around! xo

  4. My favorite corner of your home by far!!! I’m a lover of books, and seeing a designer go book heavy in their own home is refreshing. I’ve struggled with my own vast collection for the past few years, as the trends are focusing on more minimal aesthetic. These tips are so functional for keeping my collection in tact, and still creating a beautiful space. Thank you for sharing Sarah!

    1. Thanks Lauren!! I love that wall too. I think everyone should style their shelves in a way that best fits their lifestyle… if you read a lot and love books- why not go heavy on the books when shelf styling? It’s way more functional! Hope you’re having a great week. xo

  5. I was wondering about your book collection!
    Thankfully my husband allows me to remove book jackets when I don’t like them.
    I love the idea of putting small pictures on top of books. Instead of thinking I need 5×7 or 8×10 pictures, I can go smaller.
    Turning the spine of books around gets my husband in such an uproar! I personally like the look and especially if its for aesthetics!
    I have used many of his books to prop a lamp or vase up to make it appear taller.
    Great styling as always Sarah! Happy Thursday!

    1. You can definitely go smaller, Danna! I like walking up close to a built-in or bookcase to discover tiny items or photographs tucked throughout. Those are the best surprises! Great idea on using books to add height to lamps or everyday items. I do that too! Turning the spine of the books is not for everyone. I have to convince Emmett that the ones I flip around are not once we’ll read again. Haha! xo

  6. Love the post! How do you organize paperbacks? I can’t be the only one out there that has a ton of paperbacks (I honestly do go back and re-read them). I have no closed storage in my apartment (one closet total) so sadly they have to be out.
    I did style my hardbacks based on your living room reveal :)

    1. I’m kind of weird about paperbacks- I probably own less than 10. I won’t usually buy a paperback book because I don’t like them on my shelves, so I’ll just buy an e-book or digital copy instead (if it’s not available in hardback). The paperbacks I do own, I keep in a drawer in my office. Great question, Emily! xo

    2. If it were me and had no where else to store, I’d cover them in tan or gray craft paper!

  7. I love the look, and your ideas!

    Lots of bookcases in my house! Our living room/library/music room has 4 tall freestanding bookcases. I painted the backs of 2 of them a muted gold. The room is fairly dark, so I love the subtle reflection. I put dark green wrapping paper on the backs of the other 2. We have so many books that they are double-stacked, if there’s room. Great place to hide the not so pretty paperbacks, behind the prettier books!

    1. Thanks Jennifer! I love the idea of the painted backs- your bookcases sound beautiful. Wrapping paper?! Another good resourceful idea :)

  8. This is so amazingly helpful Sarah! Thank you! I am in desperate need of adding more books to our bookshelves but our family room bookcases are massive so I need oversized books which tend to cost a fortune. I’m definitely going to hit up all the thrift stores!!

    1. Thank you, Janis! I’m so glad to hear that. Definitely check out the thrift stores!

  9. Kendra Antonuk says:

    Beautiful! I use to feel guilty throwing away dust jackets, but always did anyway; I hate holding a book with the jacket on.

    1. I’m not into it either! I don’t feel a bit guilty tossing them into the recycling… I say- you do what makes you happy and what feels right :)

  10. Wow. I love this design. Where did you find that sculpture bookend? Beautiful! Thanks for the post.

  11. Sarah, I’m inspired! The den in our mid-century modern home has one wall of built-ins that, except for the styling of the lower cabinets are identical to yours! Oh yes, ours are made from a pale beechwood. After Christmas, I couldn’t bear to put them back in the way I’ve had them styled for the past 3 years. Suddenly, I disliked not only the way they were styled but every single thing (books and all) that had been on them. They have been completely empty since December 29, 2019. My husband has gently inquired about my plans for them, nearly every single day, I was feeling desperate. No more! Many thanks for sharing your incredible creativity. I’m showing your pic to the hubs this evening, I know he’ll love your styling! As a bonus for me, he’ll stop with the daily questioning!

    1. Your built-ins sound beautiful, Annie! I’m so happy this post was inspiring for you. Happy styling :) xo

  12. What do you do with your jackets? I want to take mine off too. looks nice!!

  13. Lois Huneycutt says:

    This is very weird to me. I own thousands of books but I have them organized by category (art & architecture, design, novels, poetry, biography, history, theology, children’s, etc, and then within the categories, alphabetically by author. I can find and access any title in my library within 60 seconds, which is important to me being able to work efficiently. I don’t have objects in front of or on top of them to impede me being able to access a title when I want it. I do have cool bookends in between categories.

    The books end up looking nice to me because books are inherently beautiful & interesting to me, I think.

    1. Rather than weird, I would say interesting. It’s fun to learn how we all style, organize, and decorate our collections based on our personal preferences in our home! I definitely love squeezing in objects, treasures from our travels, and decorative objects because they make me happy.