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As publishing declines, bookshelves evolve

Sad bookshelf by Blaine Johnston.

There’s been no shortage of coverage and worry about how publishing industry sturm und drang is affecting readers, authors and publishers. But what about bookshelves -- how does the decline of the physical book and rise of e-readers affect how bookcases are made, marketed and used in our homes?

Part of the answer is on display in the Chelsea storefront of BoConcept, a Danish modern furniture brand. There are plenty of sleek, beautiful shelves on display. Some of them even hold a handful of books. But you won’t hear them called bookshelves, at least not by Shaokao Cheng, who owns several BoConcept stores with his wife, Niki. He says his customers are much more likely to use those wall units for holding TVs, DVRs, framed photos or art objects.

“The book isn’t the first second or third thing that they would put in it,” he says. “It’s used in many different ways and we’ve kind of adjusted our business to suit the changes.”

That means different shapes and modular design so people can customize to fit all those other things. What was once a bookshelf is now called to duty as a media center, china cabinet, or even a desk with the right module.

The decline of physical books hasn’t changed much about furniture manufacturing, says Henry Long a senior V.P. at Hooker Furniture in Virginia. The other day some of his younger staffers questioned whether bookshelves were obsolete.

“They wondered why we were still coming out with bookcases when everyone had iPads and Kindles,” Long says. “The fact is we still sell a lot of bookcases.”

He says he’s seen a decline in his very largest bookshelves, but people still need lots of shelving, even as they move away from physical books. That includes Long himself, an avid Kindle user for whom physical books are a rare purchase.

Even those who haven’t switched to digital books are thinking differently. Empty nesters tend to thin out their book collections when they move to smaller homes. Veteran furniture designer Jena Hall says shelving is changing to fit what people put there. Designers no longer think about rows of books when they create shelves.

“The traditional rectangle bookcase, as one might visualize it, has really evolved into a more decorative piece,” she explains. “Some of them are asymmetrical. They have unusual configuration of shelves. They’re not limited to just straight horizontal planks of wood.”

But even the most digital homes will still have some books on their shelves, at least for decoration. There’s a reminder of what e-books can never replicate at the famed Manhattan used book store Strand. A number of trends have threatened to doom it, from chain bookstores to Amazon.com to e-readers. But still, the main floor bustles with people who don’t find screened pixels satisfying.

The staff area on Strand’s rare books floor has books everywhere -- on carts, on tables, desks, and yes, bookshelves. The space is fragrant with an aroma of literature printed lifetimes ago.

“Books are a work of art and that’s nothing new,” says Jenny McKibben gesturing at the handsome antique leather volumes in the store’s repair workshop. “That’s not since the dawn of the e-reader. That’s since the dawn of the book.”

That value of a book as an art object informs McKibben’s work. Interior designers and set decorators hire her to find the right books for their spaces and productions. She can create a library with books of whatever subject, size, language and color required. Good condition antique leather books go for $400 a foot. She’ll provide 12 inches of cookbooks for $125.

Books on a shelf make a design and personality statement that even a digital native won’t deny. So bookshelves aren’t dying. They’re only changing as people use them differently. And even if they’re called wall units or shelving systems instead of bookcases, there will still be books there, the ones most beautiful and meaningful to their owners.

Mark Garrison: We’re in the Chelsea storefront of BoConcept, a Danish modern furniture brand. Think far nicer and pricier than Ikea, but not $10,000 couch pricey. There are plenty of sleek, beautiful shelves on display. But you’ll see only a handful of books on them, because that’s not how customers use them.

Shaokao Cheng: The book isn’t the first, second or third thing that they would put in it.

Shaokao Cheng and his wife own several BoConcept stores in the New York area. He says his clients are more likely to use shelves for holding TVs, DVRs, framed photos and art objects. But the decline of physical books hasn’t changed much about furniture manufacturing. Henry Long is a senior VP at Hooker Furniture in Virginia. He says bookshelves can puzzle his younger staffers.

Henry Long: They wondered why we were still coming out with bookcases when everyone had iPads and Kindles. The fact is we still sell a lot of bookcases.

Long says he’s seen a decline in his very largest bookcases, but people still need shelving. It’s just different shelving, says veteran furniture designer Jena Hall.

Jena Hall: The traditional rectangle bookcase, as one might visualize it, has really evolved into a more decorative piece. Some of them are asymmetrical. They have unusual configurations of shelves.

But even the most digital homes will still have some books, at least for decoration. You can see what e-books will never replicate at the famed Manhattan bookstore Strand.

Poke your head into its offices and you’ll see books everywhere, on carts, on tables, desks, and yes, bookshelves. The place is fragrant with an aroma of pages printed lifetimes ago. Jenny McKibben shows me the room where they fix old leather volumes.

Jenny McKibben: Books are a work of art. I mean all these antique leather bindings you see around us, individually hand crafted and made by book binders and there’s so much art that goes into it.

McKibben works with interior designers and set decorators to find the right books for their spaces. She can create a library with books of whatever subject, size, language and color you want. Good condition antique leather books go for $400 a foot. You can get 12 inches of cookbooks for $125.

McKibben: I think there’s just always going to be a demand for the physical book. I mean, from an aesthetic point of view, you just, there’s something tactile about a book.

Books on a shelf make a design and personality statement that even a digital native won’t deny. So bookshelves aren’t dying. They’re only changing as people use them differently. And even if they’re called wall units or shelving systems instead of bookcases, there will still be books there, the ones most beautiful and meaningful to their owners.

In New York, I'm Mark Garrison for Marketplace.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter and substitute host for Marketplace, based in New York.

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