The space above doors is rarely used for anything, but it can extend your book storage. (iStock)

Cruise Instagram or Pinterest, and you’ll find numerous examples of warm, cushy reading areas decked out with twinkling string lights and endless built-in shelves. How do you evoke the feeling of having your own library in a small space with a small budget? We surveyed some experts for advice.

The books

Before she starts any decorating project, New York City designer Tara Seawright asks clients to cut their collections. To help them decide what stays and what goes, she suggests that they think about each volume’s day-to-day use and why they’re buying and acquiring books in the first place.

“The whole idea of books has really changed, and things get very edited,” she said, especially in New York, where space is at a premium. “Books have become more like a resource library, and people tend to keep books that are more visually arresting.”

Other questions to consider: Do you turn to a physical dictionary to look up words, or are you using an app? Do you have a favorite cookbook, or are you finding recipes online? Do you like to re-read your favorite books? Are there books that are personally meaningful to you? Do they help you with hobbies, work or school? When you’re finished, you’ll have a curated collection that reflects your passions and interests without cluttering your space, Seawright said.


Hanna Hollenbach's cat Mystery sits in her living room next to a book cart she bought at Michael's. She calls it her “TBR” cart and she uses it store books she's planning on reading in the future. (Hanna Hollenbach)

The cases

Don’t feel pressure to stick to petite furniture just because you’re furnishing a small space. “People tend to get a few small bookshelves in a small space and keep them all a manageable height, like four feet tall, but if you get a taller bookshelf that goes as close as you can to the ceiling, it makes a space feel much bigger than a lot of little shelves everywhere,” said Laurie Gillman, co-owner of East City Bookshop in the District who has a background in interior design.

She recommends picking a larger piece for your main book storage, and then supplementing with smaller options as needed. “Having something that’s bigger somehow makes the space feel more put together and inviting,” she said.

Hanna Hollenbach, a 20-year-old student who documents her book collection on Instagram (@hannasbookhaven), stores most of her books on two simple Ikea Billy bookcases flanking two large windows in the living room of her one-bedroom apartment. She also uses a rolling utility cart with three compartments that she bought at Michael’s. “I wanted something different and inexpensive that I could move to different spaces,” she said.

To add interest, she frequently switches books into different configurations. She also decorates her shelves with “book breaks” — signs, candles and figurines to infuse personality into the display.

Gillman uses several Ikea bookcases, including the Billy, in her store, along with some more statement-making pieces in bright colors or chrome that she thrifted, found on Craigslist or even picked up off the sidewalk.

The alternatives

The options are limitless when it comes to storing and decorating with books, even if you lack space. Think about nooks and crannies or those spots that might not normally be used, such as above a door frame or under the treads of a staircase. If you have high kitchen cabinets in your kitchen that aren’t seeing a lot of use, Seawright suggested taking the doors off the highest row and displaying books there.

Seawright suggests putting shelves directly on the wall. If you do so, she recommends picking shelves that match the color of the walls (“I don’t think a wall shelf that you put books on should stand out,” she said) and have an outside edge to prevent books from sliding and falling. Be careful not to hang shelves in places that would impede opening doors or windows.

Or, don’t use storage at all. As long as they’re not in the way, piles of books on the floor or under windowsills can look artful and interesting. “Stack them next to a day bed to make a visual statement,” Seawright suggested.

The rest

You don’t need a window seat or a wood-paneled study to create a cozy reading spot. According to both Seawright and Gillman, the essentials are a comfy seat, good lighting and a place to set down a drink. If you read in coffee shops or libraries, “start noticing when you stay for a long time in a place and try to duplicate that in your own home,” Seawright said.

A supportive seat is important, because you won’t use the space if you can’t be comfortable there for a while, Seawright said. She suggests pairing it with a cushioned ottoman. “Pick something comfortable where you can put your feet that’s not a stool,” she said. Pillows and throws are inexpensive ways to add more softness.

A place to set a drink, your phone or a small stack of books is essential. Gillman uses several nested tables in the store so she can have extra space to display books when she has more inventory during busy seasons, but anyone could apply this idea to their own space.

Adequate lighting is key for good reading, and the dark basement space in her store presented challenges for Gillman that she solved with layered lighting. In addition to removing some of the bulbs from many of the pre-installed fluorescent lighting fixtures, Gillman picked table lamps with shades to concentrate diffused light in the shop’s larger seating area. She said light should be about eye level when you’re sitting. Seawright suggests investing in a dimmer switch to control the mood and to choose bulbs that don’t have a blue tint to create warmth and coziness.

You could also go basic. “You could create a cozy book nook with some floor cushions, a light and maybe some milk crates to hold the books,” Gillman said. “It doesn’t have to be the most beautiful or most expensive.”