How to decorate your bookshelves with style

Almost everyone’s home contains a bookshelf or bookshelves which left unattended can become quite the elephant in the room. Jammed and crammed with odds and ends, books turned every direction and shoved on top of other books until every crack and crevice is full. I’ve even seen half of a petrified Pop Tart buried in shiny wrapping left on a shelf by a toddler. A set of built-ins or a couple of freestanding bookshelves often anchor a room and can be one of the easiest things to use as a focal point when styled in a thoughtful way. These are a few pointers to help you along in how to decorate your bookshelves with style. These steps should be easy enough to do with an hour of free time. So set your timer –  I’ve found the ticking noise helps me to focus –  and get to work! Wait, doesn’t everyone have a timer?

Spoiler alert: If you don’t have time to read this post, my summary is this, don’t overdo! Books, candles, framed photos, etc.

First, take everything off of the bookshelves. Go ahead and dust them while you are at it because you know they need to be dusted.

From this

To this

Second, throw away the crusty piece of Pop Tart, old back issues of magazines from hobbies you no longer care for – or hobbies you do care for but are never going to have time to read about – and anything else that has no real value or meaning to you or your family.

Third, group the items that you want to keep into categories. Put all of the books together, all of the decorative accessories, framed photographs, etc. This will help you see what you have to work with and to help you group like items together when you put them back on the shelves. ***I do not mean that you need to fill the shelves back with things that all go together, but if you have a few small objects made of glass, you could put all 3 together on top of a stack of coffee table books because they are small, rather than scattering them throughout your various shelves.

If you don’t like anything that you took off of your shelves, then use the following three categories for inspiration to find some new items or pull items from other areas of your home!

Fourth, consider the height and overall size of your bookshelves. If you have a vaulted ceiling family room with a fireplace and giant bookshelves on either side, then you should not put tiny items on the very top shelf, as no one will ever see them. Stand back and walk into the room slowly and notice what parts of the shelves are easy to see, and what parts are hard to see and then place your objects accordingly. In the case of 12-foot-tall bookshelves, the top shelves can handle large objects (a giant basket, large vase or a stack of massive books) but a set of small bookshelves in a home with 8-foot ceilings, you would need to place larger objects on the bottom shelf so the room doesn’t feel like it is going to tip over. Have I lost you? Then just call me and I will come over and do it for you. 🙂

Fifth, for practical storage space of less attractive items (toys for the kids or dog, exercise weights) use several baskets on the bottom shelves to house such things. This way they are easy to access when needed, but aren’t sitting out as a part of the decorative display. In the photo below the bookshelves haven’t yet been styled (oops!) but the baskets at the bottom are a good example.


Sixth, think of each shelf as having an imaginary line drawn down the middle. Each side should be balanced to have a similar height, size or weight. You could achieve this by placing a stack of books on one side and a taller, larger decorative object on the other half. You can also place things in the middle, just be sure the sides are balanced or empty.

Seventh, try not to fill an entire shelf with only books. If it is the only place in your home to store books then I understand, but I don’t like it. With books in general, you can experiment by taking the jackets off of hardback books and then grouping them by color. Sometimes it is nice to have a half shelf full of all red books, or a half shelf with 3 coffee table-sized gold books stacked horizontally and then a smaller picture frame on top. If you have lots of small paperbacks, I would fill some baskets with those and put them on a small shelf where you can’t see the books inside but know they are there when you want them.

Eighth, pictures are very nice, just don’t overdo them. It’s okay to have a shelf that simply has two photos on it and nothing else.  Don’t be afraid of that. Also, mix up your frame styles to keep it interesting between shelves.

Not this

But this

Lastly, edit, edit, edit! Stand back and take a look. Remove 2 or 3 more things. Take a few books off of a stack, remove a vase. It should be easy on the eyes and have a tidy feel. In reality, you didn’t need the space for those things that you took off anyway.

I hope these tips are helpful and that you can now tackle how to decorate your bookshelves with energy and excitement!


One more for final inspiration…thank you House Beautiful.


10 thoughts on “How to decorate your bookshelves with style

  1. Just sent this to Ryan in hopes that it will help him understand how crazy I get about our bookshelves being used ONLY as storage for books! PS- I did the bar cart thing and I want you to see it before we move- it’s maybe my favorite thing in our home now 🙂

    • Hey! That is so exciting! Can’t wait to see the bar cart. I’m pretty sure they’ll be a highlighted item in my fall features post! 🙂

  2. I can’t wait for you to style our bookshelves when we come home. However, you’ll have to fight a certain someone with the “edit the books on display” process. 🙂

  3. yeah. my bookshelves look like that in my brain, but not in reality. 🙂 maybe when you come over we can look at them. however, i’m sure there are other spots that need even more help… 🙂 looking forward to it!

  4. Thanks Hannah! We have LOTS of bookshelves and built-ins, which I love, but have a hard time figuring out what to do with them. Now I have somewhere to start!

  5. I recently moved into my own apartment, and bought two book cases to flank my TV stand to give a more substantial “built in” look, but was at a complete loss as how to decorate them. Also, I didn’t have anything to put on shelves lol. Have spent the last month thrift shopping and making some amazing finds, as well as the dollar store for glass pieces (candle holders, vases, etc.). Your article has been a God send and my book cases are shaping up nicely :). As I buy more things, I reference back here and rearrange a little each time.

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