Bookcases Buying Guide

Finding the perfect, quality bookcase for your home or office

Bookcases Buying Guide

There are many questions to ask before buying a bookcase: How many shelves do you need? How much space do you have for the bookcase? Do you prefer metal or wood? What will match your other furnishings? What style do you prefer?

Do you want a ready-made bookcase or a custom piece? What is your price range? Do you have valuable books that need to be stored behind glass or will an open bookcase meet your needs?

Will your bookcase sit on the floor or hang on the wall? Will it remain in place for years or will it need to be moved fairly often?

What will you actually put in your bookcase? Will you use it exclusively for books or for nick-knacks, craft supplies, sports equipment, trophies, or some other collectible?

Bookcases come in a huge variety of sizes. Bookcases can be found in almost any size, from small shelving units that hang on a wall to floor models that weight hundreds of pounds. Bookcases can contain a couple of shelves, reach from floor to ceiling, or cover a whole wall.

Before deciding on a bookcase, measure your room carefully, especially the ceiling height. You sure don’t want to purchase a bookcase that won’t fit into your space. Before going to a store, write down the measurements. Don’t forget to include height, width, and length.

When measuring, also take note of all plug-ins, light switches, heating vents, and central heating controls. You will need to make sure that these things will be accessible once your bookcase is in place.

Choosing a bookcase based on material

Today’s bookcases are usually made of wood or metal. Both are attractive, long lasting, and well-suited for standing up to lots of weight.

Wooden bookcases are usually more traditional but can also be whimsical and trendy. They can be purchased at discount stores and second-hand shops, but for brand new, well-made bookcases, search out furniture stores and more high-end establishments.

Metal bookcases are also beautiful and readily available. They are not only functional, but can be found in a lot more styles than what was once offered. Metal bookcases with open scrollwork and durable finishes are currently very popular. Quality metal bookcases are nothing like the old-style ones that our parents used to have in their basements and garages, so don’t write them off as “cheap” or "ugly".

Both wooden and metal bookcases work in most homes and office situations, but there are other choices are out there. Wicker bookcases are a possibility although they are not as durable and can’t take as much weight as wood or metal. Bookcases constructed from other materials like clear acrylic, Lucite, glass, and chrome are also options if you are looking for something a bit unusual and unique.

You could also choose a book shelf made out of cement blocks and rough lumber, but is that really what you want? Most adults should probably purchase a quality piece that will be around for decades.

What finishes will match your decor?

Bookcases come in a huge variety of finishes that include everything from matte stains and glossy oils, to veneers, varnishes, and colorful enamels. An office with a large walnut desk might look great with a matching wood bookcase or it might call for a more modern bookcase that brings contrast to the room. A beach house, decorated with neutral colors and light pastels, might look best with something open and airy.

While wood is a traditional material, metal bookcases are often the preferred choice. They can be purchased in any color of the rainbow and even come in finishes that mimic the appearance of real wood or even cement. Your choice will depend on existing decor, personal style, budget, and intended use.

Bookcases come in a huge variety of styles, including traditional, contemporary, and modern. Consider the following…

Jacobean, Pennsylvania Dutch, Louis XVI, Chippendale, Victorian, Art Deco, Scandinavian Contemporary, Spanish Mission, Mid-Century Modern, American Colonial, Rustic, Minimalist, Relaxed Modern, Shabby Chic, Industrial, and Urban Collective are just some of the possibilities when it comes to choosing a style that fits your taste.

The best selling styles include Mid-Century Modern and Scandinavian Contemporary, although Shabby Chic and Urban Collective are also high on the list. Mid-Century Modern has a sleek look that goes with other styles without clashing, while Shabby Chic usually comes with a distressed look that fits perfectly into a Bohemian-styled room.

Chippendale and Victorian styles bring warmth to a room while Minimalist and Industrial styles bring about a colder, cityscape look. A rustic bookshelf might be perfect for a mountain cabin, but look out of place in a New York penthouse.

There are other types of bookcases, such as leaning and hanging bookcases, that don’t readily fit into any established category. Leaning bookcases that look like half of a step-ladder are currently very popular in the home accessory market. Hanging units that are attached to hooks in the ceiling are also an option. These types of bookcases are very casual and go perfectly in any room where a bulky piece of furniture would look out of place. Lightweight shelving units are also easy to move and less expensive than larger bookcases.

The style of bookcase that you chose should complement the other furnishings in the room. You can easily change out pillows and wall-hangings, even rugs and chairs, but a bookcase, like any other piece of heavy furniture, is going to be around a while.

Will a ready made bookcase suffice or do you require a custom piece?

Ready-made bookcases are perfect for most homes and offices. A ready-made bookcase is available immediately and is usually priced much lower than a custom-made or built-in piece. Depending on delivery time and a few other factors, a ready-made bookcase can be set up in less than an hour.

Purchasing a ready-made bookcase or “kit” that you have to put together is much simpler and easier than hiring someone to create a custom bookcase. Don't forget to read the instruction booklet if your bookcase comes with one.

Of course, there are times when only a custom bookcase will do. If you have cathedral ceilings and want your bookcase to cover a twenty-foot wall, then you will probably need to purchase a custom-made piece.

If you want your bookcase to be permanently attached to the wall or to match other built-in cabinetry, you may also want to go custom. If you are building a home library, perhaps fulfilling a life-long dream, then definitely go for custom-built-ins. The bookcase will add value to your home, give years of pleasure, and look fabulous.

How much should I spend on a new bookcase?

With furniture, you really do get what you pay for in the long run. Bookcase prices range from less than a hundred dollars to many thousands. Don’t take out a high-interest loan, but do buy the best bookcase you can afford.

Quality bookcases can be bought for around $500, certainly many styles and sizes can be found for less than $2,000. High end bookcases may run $3000 or more, especially if made out of rare wood like teak or chestnut. Also, look to pay more for bookcases with lots of hand-carving and other decorative elements like lights and fancy hardware. The cost of your bookcase will ultimately depend on what you are comfortable paying.

Do you need a bookshelf with glass doors?

If you are a collector of rare books, you might want to consider the protection that glass doors can offer. Maybe a Barrister Bookcase would suit your needs better than an open shelving unit.

Bookcases with glass doors are perfect for keeping collections free from dust and smoke, but they need to be left open occasionally to allow for air circulation. If your house or office is located in a climate with high humidity, you will also need to check for mold and mildew on a regular basis.

Barrister bookcases are another special option that offer lots of protection. Barrister bookcases have separate units that stack. The glass doors usually slide up from the closed position into the area above where books are sitting. With the modular design of most Barrister Bookcases, you can stack them as high as you want, adding more units as your collection grows.

What is the difference between a bookcase and a shelving unit?

Bookcases are usually larger pieces that sit on the floor. Shelving units are smaller and can hang from the wall or ceiling.

Bookcases can usually hold a lot more than a single shelving unit and can withstand the weight of many heavy books. Shelving units, when attached to studs or wood, can also be strong, but beware if your walls are plaster or sheetrock. You sure don’t want your book shelf to fall, possibly damaging the wall, the items on the shelf, or someone’s head!

Will your bookcase need to be moved fairly often?

If you move a lot, it is best to stick with bookcases that can be easily carried by one or two people. You will not want to buy a heavy bookcase if it is a nightmare to move it across town or country. If moving is in your immediate future, you should opt for a lightweight bookcase.

If your mind is set on a large, heavy unit, it might be wise to wait until you are settled in your new place before making the purchase. You will be glad you did.

What is the intended use for your bookcase?

If you want to show off a few nice books along side some trophies, framed pictures, or other decorative items, a small bookcase will do the job just fine. There are many smaller shelving units and bookcases available to choose from, so keep looking until you find the perfect one.

If you have loads of books, a larger bookcase is the best solution. Most books, including paperbacks, hardcopies, and even antique books will be safe in an open bookcase as long as there is not a lot of smoke and dust in the room. If you collect rare books, signed books, or books with leather covers, you might want to invest in either a bookcase with doors or a Barrister bookcase.

Maybe you are purchasing a bookcase for crafting supplies or emergency food items. In these cases, metal shelving might be more appropriate than a large wooden bookcase.

Whatever your intended use for a new bookcase, there are many varieties, styles, and sizes, so take your time and find the one that is best for you.