Bookcases Now Must Bear Electronic Media As Well As The Printed Word

By Rosalie E. Leposky

In a Gothic mansion of yesteryear, the library routinely sheltered young heroines from frightening life experiences. Now that the family entertainment center performs that function in a high-tech way, books must struggle for shelf space against an onslaught of electronic equipment, CDs, laser disks, and videocassettes.

Today's diverse media challenge the technology we use to support and display them. Big TV sets may need more depth than the average bookcase provides, ventilation holes to let the equipment breathe and dissipate heat, and built-in wiring -- or at least ports through which wires may pass.

Farooq Kathwari, chief executive officer, chairman, and president of Ethan Allen Home Interiors, says the rise of home-entertainment centers within the past decade has revolutionized bookcase design and bolstered sales. "Well-designed furniture is required to display and store home-entertainment equipment, books, and collectables. Ethan Allen expects increased interest in home-entertainment wall systems and bookcases," he says.

Convenience and Sacrifice

William H. "Bill" Ytley, director of sales for Hooker Furniture in Martinsville, Virginia, says, "We offer upgrades for our bookcases to meet the changing needs of our owners." These include knockout panels in back to accommodate larger televisions, space for VCRs and cable boxes, ventilation holes, coaxial-cable wiring, and three- or four-plug surge-protected outlets. Such technological convenience entails sacrifice, however. Ytley concedes that Hooker's bookcase and display space are limited, and that matching bookcase cabinetry may be hard to find.

Some manufacturers make wooden custom-size finished bookcases to fit in any decor or space. Among furniture manufacturers providing separate bookcases to which homeowners may add as the need arises, Tell City Chair Company in Tell City, Indiana, makes the American Collection wall units. Freestanding bookcases and wall systems in the American Collection have solid wooden doors below, and space above for the TV. Surrounding the TV may be storage drawers, open shelves for videocassettes, or glass cases to display curios and china (with interior curio-cabinet lighting an available option). Broyhill Furniture Industries, Inc., is another national maker of modular bookcases. For information about Broyhill furniture and distributors, phone 1-800-3BROYHILL (327-6944).

Variations in Size

The distance between shelves and the width of the shelves varies. Some bookcases come with adjustable shelves, but fixed shelves tend to be stronger because they are assembled in a tongue-and-grove fashion or with dado joints (square-edged slots or grooves into which the ends of the shelves are glued snugly on the sides of the bookcase). The stronger adjustable shelves come with a metal strip affixed to the side of the bookcase.The strongest has the metal clip attached to a second piece of metal and not directly to the wood.

Bookshelves should be well-supported in the middle and at the ends of the shelves, and bookcase ends should be flush and square to stand alone, or should fit snugly next to other furniture. The shelves of a bookcases should not span more than three feet because longer spans bow and warp under the heavy weight of books.

The typical bookcase has shelves 12 to 14 inches deep, but many entertainment centers have 18-inch-deep shelves. Tell City, for instance, makes bookcases that are 18 inches deep, 36 inches wide, and 80 inches tall.

Oak bookcases 30 inches wide by 72 inches high typically sell for $99 to $169, and entertainment-center bookcases begin at about $500."

"Veneers are used in bookcases to create a more dramatic effect and control the direction of the wood grain," says James B. Myers, vice president of product development at Lexington Furniture Industries, Inc., a division of MASCO in Lexington, North Carolina. Sometimes, he says, veneers are used even over solid wood bases. Oak furniture frequently is stained to match other wood furniture used in the same room. Tell City's oak furniture comes stained and assembled with knotty cherry doors.

Some designers are featuring bookcases with glass and metal shelves. These new designs look attractive and may display decorative collectables safely, but may not hold as much weight as conventional wooden bookcases.

Architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen of Washington, D.C., has developed one of the simplest bookcase designs -- a full wall of recessed "eggcrate bookcases" with wooden dividers at regular intervals. He uses them often in his high-end California home designs. 

Self-Help

Cabinets and Built-ins (Creative Homeowners Press, 1996), a 160-page book by architect Herb Hughes of Lacey Springs, Arkansas, is a source of information on building bookcases with a box frame construction. Hughes shows readers ways to modify the project to match any furniture style with new finishes, hardware, and trim. The book contains 400 drawings for 27 carpentry projects, including bookcases, entertainment centers, sport lockers, and storage cabinets.

Old-Fashioned Solutions

Impecunious graduate students still may haunt construction sites to scavenge bricks, cement blocks, and boards, but another source of low-cost book storage has vanished into the high-priced inventory of antique shops. I refer to the once-lowly, now-exalted wooden pear crate. My family still owns and cherishes more than a dozen of them, scrounged from fruit vendors at no cost in the early 1960s. Pear crates serve superbly as modular bookcases.

They are just the right size and weight. When moving time comes, they don't need packing or unpacking. You just pick them up, with contents in place, and carry them off.

Several years ago, as our library grew, we needed additional bookcase storage. We looked with a jaundiced eye at inexpensive easy-to-assemble bookcases made of laminated or pressed wood, and at the costly wooden wall systems on the market at the time. Then we hired a carpenter to build more built-in bookcases. This middle-priced solution was cost-effective but has one profound disadvantage: When we move, the bookcases won't.

Rosalie E. Leposky is managing partner of Ampersand Communications, a news-features syndicate based in Miami, Florida.

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