Forget judging people by their clothes, their cars, or their careers. Want to know someone? Look at their books. What people choose to fill their minds and souls tells you all you need to know: what they love, where they’ve been, what they know, what they want to know, and what they dream of.
“The books on your shelves say who you are,” says private librarian Christy Shannon Smirl, of Wilson, Wyoming. “They talk about your aesthetic, your tastes, your intellect and your interests. A room full of books reflects the many different parts of someone’s life. Nothing else in a house does that.
The books, however, only tell part of the story. The way they are displayed says the rest. That’s where Smirl comes in, who has a master’s degree in library science and an eye for design. Smirl launched Foxtail Books & Library Services five years ago to help book lovers store, organize and organize their personal libraries.
“Books are some of the most special things we own,” says Smirl. “They deserve to be arranged with care and intention.”
I listen with delighted envy. As someone who loves books and home decor, I can’t believe this work actually exists. Browsing through pictures of personal libraries on the Foxtail website makes me want to snuggle up inside and read for the rest of my life, that is, if there were no other things to do.
But right now, and while I have Smirl on the phone, I have some burning questions about the books.
Q How did you get into this job?
A After working as a librarian for public and university libraries for a dozen years, I noticed that several homes in my area needed the same services. The residents here are highly educated and have traveled extensively. They have beautiful houses and fabulous collections of books. Nobody was doing that.
Q How is the job of a private librarian different?
A I’m doing the same job I used to do – organizing, organizing, researching and figuring out how best to organize the shelves – except instead of working with 100,000 books, I’m working with 1,000 or 500 or 200 I love the combination of making someone’s personal library a place they can use and find great joy, while making the books look great.
Q Well, where to begin ?
A When I meet with clients, we talk about the topics that are important to them and how they use their books. This helps determine which books rise to the top and deserve better real estate, say at eye level. Then we work on classifying the books by category, and we make sure that they are in the right room or in the right place, the cookbooks in the kitchen, for example. Some subjects may be close to the front of the house on the coffee table, others in the office or family room. Maybe in the guest room you have books about the area. In my spare bedroom, I put wildflower books and trail guides.
Q What are some of your favorite ways to display books?
A Look past the shelves for any flat surface―a stool, a bar cart, a nightstand―and stack them.
Q Would you rather fill the entire library with books or leave some space empty?
A Some clients have a wall full of books, and that looks great. However, when the shelves are only half full, you have more display options. You can orient the books left to right or right to left. You can turn the books on their side. You can complete the collection with accessories: trays, stones, paintings, bookends, metal sculptures. If the object relates to the books, like an old camera from photography books, even better.
Q OK, let’s be controversial. Do you organize alphabetically by author, color or size?
A My job is to give options, although I can tell you what to do. I almost always organize fiction by author. In cases where we categorize books by subject that fills one shelf or less, organizing by height can provide a sense of order. Highly visual people often organize books by color, which really pushes some readers’ buttons.
Q And the jackets of books lit or not? I once wrote about their removal and my oh my god you would have thought I told people to sell their kids.
A For me, removing the cover takes away the subject of the book. The jackets contain information about the book and the author. A missing dust jacket also takes away the value of a book.
Q Because not all books are worth displaying, like, say, old paperbacks, which ones are behind closed doors?
A I display a mix of hard and soft covers in good condition. Don’t hide a book because it’s well-liked. A tattered book can be beautiful. Manuals or manuals do not need to be taken out.
Q Book lovers can easily acquire too much of a good thing. What do we have your permission to get rid of?
A While I love a house full of tottering stacks of books in every corner, I also believe it’s important to get rid of books you don’t need. Certainly, old travel guides can go there. They quickly become obsolete. Look to donate cookbooks or exercise books purchased during a fashionable time, and books related to former professional interests or life stages.
Q What is the best way to take care of books?
A Don’t leave them open, it will eventually break their spine. Keep them away from light, especially direct sunlight and water. If a book gets wet, it can develop mildew which can spread. Do not wipe books or shelves with a damp cloth or furniture polish. Use a dry feather duster.
Q What do you wish more people knew?
A Despite the many strong opinions, what matters is that people enjoy their books, whatever that means to them. A life full of books is a good life.
Marni Jameson is the author of six home and lifestyle books including “What to Do With Everything You Own to Leave the Legacy You Want”, “Downsizing the Family Home – What to Save, What to Let Go” and “Downsizing the Blended Home – When Two Homes Become One. You can reach her at marnijameson.com.