How Many Bookshelves Do I Need? A Way to Estimate and Put More Books on a Shelf

This is another reprinted piece. I wrote a string of short essays dealing with books & working in a bookstore, including this one. I hope you find it useful! (c) Jenny Little

I have worked in and around the book business for more than 20 years. I ran a used book shop for 9 years. Due to various things, the store’s inventory was moved into 3 different locations and arranged (reorganized) more often than I care to remember, usually to try and get more books on the same shelves.

One thing you do when you have a bookstore rather than a home library is frequently sort the books by format: that is by size/ binding. If you haven’t done this, look at your books and see if it makes sense. Do you have a lot of books of a certain size?

Large (called “trade”) paperbacks I’d plan to shelve with the hardcovers (unless you have a large quantity of them). Rack-sized paperbacks ( “mass market”) I’d usually shelve by themselves. For oversize books, coffee table books and kids’ picture books, you’ll probably want to put them on the lower shelves.

Depending on how many books you’ve got, the size of the space, and budget, here’s what I’d do. Booksellers adopt types of boxes. It’s much easier to estimate space/storage requirements when all the boxes are the same size or two. Professionals do this, but I realize you can’t always. To help this, try packing your most owned type in the same size box, if you can. This will help when you are doing your estimate, below.

Pile on the floor a 1′ stack of each type of book you have a lot of: mass markets, trades, hardcovers,  kids, or what have you. Count how many books are in each stack. If the books are boxed by size (as described above) and your 1 foot stack of hardcovers is 1.5 boxes, you can estimate of how many board feet of shelving you need now.  (One foot of shelving = 1.5 boxes. How many boxes of this type do you have? Do the math.)

Do this for each size of book. If your books aren’t boxed, but are on shelves, you already know how many board feet you need, to start with. Do the 1′ test for the books that have no home. Then you know approximately what you need in terms of board feet. That is, you know how long the new shelves added together have to be.

For the depth of the shelves, there are some typical sizes. You’ll probably need deep shelves for the picture books and coffee table books on the lower shelves. Not only is this easier, but it means that you won’t have a 4lb book land on your head (nor will your kids). Also, it makes books more accessible for children.

There are no absolute “standard” sizes for hardcovers, picture books, kids books, etc. But the shelving sold by one of the biggest library supply companies in the US is available in 10″, 12″, 20″, and 24″ depths. So what I’d do is probably draw a line on a piece of paper the depth that you’d think would work, and check those 1′ stacks. Would all the books fit on a shelf that deep? For your budget I’d start with whatever standard board widths are easily available in your area and see if you can plan your library to use those. Call a lumber yard or go by and talk to them about your shelving needs.

WARNING #1: If your line is 12″ and your average book is 14″ deep, it doesn’t look like much, a full shelf of books will be fine. But after you remove a book or two, it’s easy to create a situation where you’ll be “rained on.” This is very uncomfortable as well as potentially DANGEROUS. If your average book is 14″ deep, make your shelves at LEAST 14″ or preferably 14.5″ deep. This won’t stop the raining books entirely, but it will be MUCH rarer! Ideally, shelves should probably be at least 1″ deeper than the books they hold.

WARNING #2: Kids love to climb bookshelves! (I did.) Make sure all bookcases that kids could potentially climb are ANCHORED to the WALL. For safety, anchor them all anyway, but especially if you have kids. Wobbly bookcases are a dangerous situation looking for the right time to prove once again that Newton was right about gravity.

Books are heavy. Bookcases, built to carry them are heavier. Bookcases full of books are VERY heavy.

Once you know how many linear feet you need and how deep the shelves should be, you can price out the wood, bricks, supports, or whatever.

If your new shelves still won’t hold your collection, you’ll have to do some chicanery to get those books put away. You’ll perhaps try some double stacking or flatstacking. (Consider buying deeper shelves if this is necessary.)

To get more mass markets (almost all the same size) on a shelf, flat stacking them on their sides will usually allow you to get more books per linear foot than if you leave them standing up. If you put them in order standing up and then just rotate them 90 degrees to the left to lie flat, the books that have been left to right will go from the bottom of the stack to the top. My store shelves were set up this way. It takes a little getting used to: bottom to top, but it can nearly double the mass markets you can get per linear foot.

Flat stacking doesn’t work as well for hardcovers and trades because of their differing sizes. For hardcovers/trades,what I usually did was do a back layer of mass markets if I had to have the space. An average mass market is 4.5″ x 7.5″ in the U.S. If you’re sorting your books by category, try putting the tallest books on each end of the shelf and the smallest in the middle. This uses the larger books to help bookend the smaller ones.

Because I know about flat stacking saving space, I play with books on my shelves to see what’s best for a given category. Sometimes they’re flatstacked. Sometimes they’re mixed due to function — I want all the cookbooks together for example. Some are double- and triple-stacked.

I’ve seen people with more books than money stack books and put a piece of glass or plastic on top — to make a table. This works fine in a corner or such, but don’t lean on it! Warning 3: If you have children, the potential for a disaster is just too big, don’t do this! If you don’t have a pretty stack of books and/or piece of glass, the table idea can be done with a board and then covered with a tablecloth.

Decorators these days seem to put small stacks of books on the floor next to easy chairs or in other locations. That’s fine, if you rarely want the bottom book! If not, it’s problematic.

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