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Storage Solutions for Booksellers

by Craig Stark

#93, 30 April 2007

Part I: The Options

Some of you may recall that, in a former lifetime, I designed and built furniture. For one reason or another, I probably built more shelving - or bookcases - than anything else. After you've built your first 100 or so bookcases, you start to get a feel for what works and what doesn't; after 1,000, you don't even have to think about it anymore. You just know, usually at a glance, even if you're looking at something you didn't build yourself.

Booksellers have special needs for shelving. Walk into your neighborhood Wal-Mart and buy a bookcase kit constructed of melamine- or vinyl-surfaced particle board, and those needs will be far from met. Books are heavy. Sometimes really heavy. And booksellers have this tendency to fill entire shelves with them. Ironically, most ready-made shelving isn't adequately designed to hold books - or at least very many books. Either the dimensions are wrong (unsupported spans are too wide side to side), the materials, or both, and it's usually both. The Wal-Mart version won't even perform well with paperbacks. Over time, this kind of shelving will actually sag under the weight of its own shelf members - that is, it doesn't even need to be loaded to fail. And don't even get me started on particle board moisture issues.

One of the reasons many shelving units aren't designed for library-like use is that most buyers don't use them exclusively for books or other unusually heavy objects, and designers know this. Lighter items such as electronic components, decorative pieces, etc., often find themselves on shelving, and books may be few and far between. So why over-build?

Of course, cost is another reason. Generally speaking, particle board is the cheapest (coated varieties coming in slightly more than uncoated), followed by MDF (medium density fiberboard), plywood and, at the top of the heap, solid wood (though furniture-grade plywood can be obscenely expensive).

Definitely, there are other options besides wood or wood products. Metal shelving units, for example, sometimes in combination with particle board; plastic shelving units; glass, and so on. Most metal and plastic shelving units I've seen aren't suitable for heavy use, despite how they're advertised. Super heavy duty! Right. Load it with books, and inevitably it sags, if not immediately, soon, and sometimes it breaks - and it isn't exactly gorgeous to look at either, unless it's in a garage next to a workbench. Glass, in thicknesses sufficient to support this kind of weight, is prohibitively expensive, as are library-grade metal solutions.

I should mention that metal and plastic shelving is getting better. Home Depot currently markets fairly good examples of each under the brand name "Work Force." At first glance, both appear stout, and both are reasonably priced - for example, a 72" high, 18" deep 4-shelf unit can be had for about $40 (plastic) to $60+ (metal). And books can be loaded from both sides, not unlike library shelving. You could do much worse.

However, before sinking money into one of these, I urge you to conduct a simple test. If there's a floor model available, lay a rigid ruler (or something similar) parallel to and near the front edge of one of the shelves, then grip the front-middle of the shelf with your hand and pull down as hard as you can. Unless you're exceptionally strong, you won't be able to exert any more downward force than a shelf full of heavy books would, probably much less. Now, if there's a significant amount (1/4" or more) of daylight between the ruler and the top of the shelf, this foretells what will happen after you load it with books - and the result will probably be worse. Both Home Depot units, by the way, failed this test for me, though admittedly they performed better than most.

It's worth noting that it will help matters significantly if you lay plywood cut to size on top of the existing shelves - " plywood, in fact, will eliminate most and perhaps all sagging, depending on the load, but unless you have access to free or exceptionally cheap plywood, the cost per unit will nearly double. In any case, no matter what you do to strengthen the shelves, once these units are fully loaded with books, they are significantly less stable overall. You can push on either side with your hand and rock them back and forth. Over time, strength will diminish.

Also keep in mind that there are aesthetic issues with plastic or metal. Apart from their industrial appearance, which may or may not work for your work area, these have poor "shape memory" - that is, deformations will likely be permanent to a significant degree when loads are removed. The same is true of particle board and MDF. Solid wood and plywood, on the other hand, are more likely to return to their original shape because of their fibrous nature. Don't know about you, but I loathe sagging shelves.

Wall-mounted brackets in combination with plywood or solid-wood shelving is another option. As long as the standards (or brackets) are spaced fairly close together, shelf sagging shouldn't be an issue, but wow, what an inefficient use of space. This type of shelving eats up wall space (and, indirectly, floor space) by the yard in no time and offers no portability whatsoever. In the past, I've also used ventilated shelving - that vinyl-coated junk you see mounted on walls in a lot of closets. Talk about deformation. It might work ok if you spaced the standards every six inches or so, but who wants to mess with that? And you'd still be left with the same space and portability disadvantages.

So - what's the best answer for booksellers? Certainly furniture-grade plywood and/or solid wood bookcases are somewhat to very expensive to buy ready-made, and this is assuming that they're designed to hold the loads you'll be dumping on them in the first place - a big assumption - but if there was a simple method of constructing wood shelving yourself, a well-designed unit would not only support loads on the order that we're talking about without significant deformation but also cost only somewhat more than so-called heavy-duty plastic and metal shelving. And last virtually forever. Moreover, if aesthetics were an issue, you would have the option of finishing it in any color and/or adding decorative elements to it.

The purpose of this series of articles is to suggest such a method. Before you dismiss the idea of a do-it-yourself approach, perhaps thinking that you're all thumbs when it comes to building anything at all, I urge you to keep an open mind. Over the years, I've constructed furniture using nearly every joint known to mankind - dados, dovetails, dowel joints, interlocking joints, lap joints, mortise and tenon, and many more. The joint I'll be proposing in Part II of this series is unlike any of them in that an exceptionally strong connection can be accomplished in a matter of moments - and all one needs going in is a power drill and a fairly low-cost jig.

I'll discuss this joint in Part II of this series, present various designs in Part III, and propose a simple, professional-level finishing technique in Part IV - and we'll conclude with a reader-submitted article (Part V) that will show you how to get lots more storage per square foot with your shelving than you might ever have imagined. It's worth the wait.

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Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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