There’s something special about antique and vintage furniture pieces. Unlike mass-produced items that can feel impersonal, antique pieces come with a sense of history and nostalgia. Bookshelves are one furniture type where choosing an antique version can add buckets of charm and character to your space. Antique bookshelves range widely in terms of styles, sizes, and structure, but they commonly exude an old-world aesthetic that feels timeworn and practical.
If you’re looking to add a vintage bookshelf to your home, there are some key aspects to consider so your shelf not only looks gorgeous, but functions well for your needs. Let’s first explore some of the most popular antique bookshelf styles and their unique characteristics before diving into choosing the right piece, decorating it stylishly, and answering some frequently asked questions.
The Top Styles of Antique Finish Bookshelves
Antique bookshelves come in endless forms, but a few specific styles stand out as perennial favorites and work wonderfully in both traditional and contemporary home interiors. Here are five of the top varieties to consider:
True to their name, ladder-back bookshelves feature a tall, slender design that mimics the shape of an old wooden ladder. These bookcases typically have four to six shelves, sometimes accompanied by a ladder-like backboard. The shelves organize books and items vertically rather than horizontally.
Ladder-back bookcases are ideal for small, tight spaces like hallways, stair landings, and galley kitchens. Their verticality saves on space while their vintage vibe makes them a charming transitional piece. They’re easiest to use for storing books and smaller items rather than larger display objects.
For an ultra-distinguished look, barrister bookshelves reign supreme. These handsome bookcases consist of a wood Cupboard base with deep niches that generally feature enclosed cabinets or drawers. The upper portion has a set of open shelves behind glass doors, creating visual symmetry.
Barrister shelves were originally used by barristers (or lawyers) to store legal books and materials. The enclosed glass cabinets kept documents protected and free of dust.
Today, barrister bookcases lend a gorgeous, polished look to home offices, studies, and living rooms. The glass doors elegantly show off prized book collections, decorative objects, and barware. The deep drawers provide concealed storage. Barrister shelves work best againstwalls rather than as standalone units, as the glass doors only cover the front.
Opt for rich woods like cherry, mahogany, oak, or walnut to make a barrister bookcase the true focal point of a room. For a modern twist, some companies offer metal barrister shelves with a more industrial, streamlined look.
If you have awkward, empty corner space, a corner bookshelf can be the perfect solution. These shelves come shaped specifically to tuck into corners, featuring angled front-facing sides and a triangular footprint.
Corner bookshelves maximize pesky wasted space and avoid jutting into the rest of the room. Their unusual shape also adds striking visual dimension and depth to a room. The angled facades gracefully greet visitors rather than leaving an ignored gap.
Both vintage and contemporary corner shelves range widely in size, from small accent pieces to tall towers. More elaborate corner bookcases may incorporate cabinets, display ledges, and other built-ins. Take measurements to find a piece scaled to your room.
Apothecary bookshelves are basically antique versions of modular shelving units. Their origins trace back to pharmacies and apothecaries, where they held medicinal herbs and ingredients.
Defined by their distinct cubby-hole compartments of varying sizes and levels, these versatile bookshelves excel at organizing an array of objects neatly. The small compartments are ideal for smaller books and items, while larger shelves handle bigger objects. Many apothecary cases have enclosed cabinet space as well.
Apothecary bookcases range from single stacks to towering, room-dominating pieces. Their bold, striking appearance makes them a popular statement shelf. Opt for a distressed, beat-up finish to play up the vintage pharmacy vibe.
Globe & Circular Bookshelves
For the antique bookshelf seeker who enjoys bold geometric statement pieces, globe and circular bookshelves deliver drama and intrigue. Ranging from perfect spheres to spinning ovals to futuristic rings, these circular shelving units never fail to dazzle and delight.
Circular bookshelves complement rounded architecture and interior design beautifully. Their dynamic shapes and curved lines feel naturally harmonious and soothing. Intriguing shapes like spheres can feel avant-garde in modern living rooms and offices or elegantly Baroque in classical settings.
When choosing a circular shelf, pay special attention to overall width and depth, as the curved footprint can deceive. Spinning units also allow you to access all sides easily. Go for metal, wood, or even colored glass for translucent charm.
Key Considerations When Choosing an Antique Bookshelf
Beyond just aesthetic appeal, several practical factors come into play when selecting the right antique shelf for your space. Keep the following key considerations in mind:
Match Your Overall Design Style
Your bookshelf should feel cohesive with the surrounding room style. For instance, an ornate, carved Gothic shelf would seem out of place in a sleek modern setting. If your interior skews traditional, monolithic units like barrister cases make sense, while more eclectic rooms can handle something fun like a circular shelf.
Take stock of the genre of your space – formal, casual, modern, vintage? Then narrow your search to antique shelves that enhance the existing vibe.
Carefully Evaluate Size and Space
You may fall in love with a massive Oversizeddropout front bookshelf online, but never bring home a shelf without checking dimensions and space planning! No matter how gorgeous a piece is, an oversized bookshelf crammed into a tiny room will feel disruptive rather than dazzling.
Take careful measurements of the area where you plan to place the shelf. Make sure to measure the actual footprint as antique shelves often have greater depth, molding, and side detailing. Consider other spatial factors like doors and windows, traffic flow, and room for pulling out chairs or drawers. An ideal bookshelf fits the space harmoniously.
Consider Wood Tone
The color and style of wood has a tremendous impact on the look and feel of a bookshelf. Warm, darker antique woods like mahogany, cherry, and walnut immediately feel traditional and elegant. Distressed medium-tone woods add vintage appeal, while very light birch or maple forests tend to read as more casual and beachy.
The wood finish should coordinate with the room’s palette. For example, painted white shelves pop against bold walls but may look too stark next to light neutrals. Darker woods contrast with whites but can feel overwhelming in small dark spaces. Select a wood tone that enhances rather than competes with the intended atmosphere.
Determine Special Features
Beyond the basic shelf structure, consider any special features needed to meet your bookshelf needs:
- Adjustable shelving: Removable shelves allow you to customize storage as your objects change. Great for growing book collections.
- Cabinets/drawers: Concealed storage to tuck away lesser-used items. Help minimize clutter on the open shelves.
- Lighting: Ambient illumination cast on the shelves or display lighting to highlight special objects.
- Ladder: Some styles like ladder-back cases incorporate sliding library ladders. These improve access for tall shelves.
- Backing: Backed vs. open backs impact aesthetics and structural support.
Vet Quality and Construction
Not all antique-style shelves are created equal. As you browse options, keep an eye out for marks of quality construction:
- Solid wood over veneers: Solid wood offers greater stability and ages better than laminate veneers, which can peel and deteriorate over time.
- Joinery method: High-end antique shelves utilize sturdy joinery like mortise and tenon instead of nails and staples. Dovetail joints also indicate quality.
- Hardware: Look for strong hinges, knobs, and handles that will withstand wear versus flimsy options that will break down faster.
- Finishing: Distressing should be stylistic rather than exposing corners cut in construction. Well-done finish brings out the wood grain beautifully over time.
Weight and sturdiness: Aim for solid, weighty, well-joined construction versus lightweight shelves that wobble easily.
Mind Your Budget
Antique furnishings run the monetary gamut from affordable to exorbitant. In general, the most intricately carved hardwood creations carry the highest prices, while more rustic wood shelves are gentler on the wallet.
Focus less on a fixed dollar amount and more on getting the best quality materials and construction for your budget. A $2,000 oak shelf with exquisite joinery will outlast a $2,000 elm shelf nailed together hastily at twice the size. Seek quality, longevity, and design over size alone.
Well-chosen vintage pieces appreciate in value over time, so view your bookshelf as an investment. Check local antique stores, estate sales, thrift shops, and Facebook Marketplace for potential hidden deals.
Frequently Asked Questions About Antique Bookshelves
How can I determine if a bookshelf is a true antique versus a reproduction?
Several factors indicate a bonafide antique:
- Patina: Does the wood finish show natural signs of aging like nicks, scrapes, cracks, fading, or water marks? Artificial distressing looks more uniform.
- Markings/labels: Maker’s marks, company labels, stamps, and handwritten notes offer clues about origins. Look for dates pre-1960s.
- Hardware: Period handles, tacks, and hardware give away age. Look for wear vs. shiny new.
- Joinery and structure: Older joinery like dovetail joints and non-machine cut wood indicates authenticity.
- Style: Reproductions tend to mimic popular styles like French farmhouse and English Georgian based on today’s trends rather than historic accuracy.
Are antique bookshelves expensive?
There’s tremendous variety in pricing:
- True antiques: Expect higher prices for bookshelves from sought-after makers like Eames or Those from desired time periods like art deco. Condition greatly affects price.
- Vintage: “Vintage” bookshelves from the 1950s-1990s may be less costly, although popularity of styles impacts price point.
- Reproductions: Newly made shelves using traditional construction and stylistic distressing are generally the lowest cost.
- Thrifted/refurbished: Rescued and upcycled cases from thrift shops can yield bargains but require DIY work.
What are the standard antique bookshelf dimensions?
Antique bookshelves vary greatly in size:
- Heights: Small end tables under 3 feet; display cases around 4-5 feet; towering cases up to 8-9 feet tall
- Widths: Narrow ladder back units under 2 feet; large barrister cases up to 6 feet wide
- Depths: Units as shallow as 4 inches for walls; deeper options 18-24 inches
- Shape: Rectangular, circular, spherical, triangular, curved
There are no “standard” dimensions. Browse according to the measurements of your intended space.
How do I decorate an antique bookshelf?
A well-styled shelf showcases your personality. Decor ideas include:
- Books: The natural choice! Fill with favorites, collectible sets, or color-coordinated spines.
- Plants: Trailing ivy, potted succulents, and delicate ferns soften shelves.
- Sculptural objects: Ceramics, carved figures, geological specimens
- Memorabilia: Sentimental photos, souvenirs, mementos in frames
- Baskets: Woven baskets corral smaller items. Great textural element.
- Lighting: Cohesive lamps, sconces or string lighting amp up drama.
Mix luxe and rustic elements for visual interest. Rotate seasonal accessories. Group items thematically. Begin with bigger statement pieces, then fill in gaps.
What paint colors complement antique shelves?
Stick with versatile neutral wall colors like off-whites, warm whites, beiges, light to mid-range grays, and even soft black. Neutrals allow the visual beauty of wood shelves to take center stage versus competing.
Crisp whites and palest grays play up light woods; soft beiges and warm taupes enhance medium woods; charcoal gray and black provide a moodier backdrop for dark woods. Avoid overly bold colors that may date quickly and clash with future décor. Select a neutral with enough depth to avoid looking flat and stark next to wood textures.
How can I mix antique and modern décor around my bookshelf?
Blending vintage and contemporary elements creates an alluring eclectic style. Try these ideas:
- Modernize with metallic: Add sleek brass, copper or silver accents like table lamps or bookends
- Play with shape: Place a round mirror or oval pouf near a rectilinear shelf
- Mix materials: Combine the wood shelf with stone, marble, Lucite, or glass for contrast
- Add unexpected art: Hang an abstract painting, geometric print, or modern sculpture nearby
- Light it up: Use contemporary pendant lights, sconces, or accent strips
- Layer rugs: Ground the shelf with a bold graphic rug instead of traditional Oriental
The goal is creating dynamic tension between new and old—not clashing. Repeat some clean-lined elements for cohesion. Think beyond shelving to the entire roomscape.
Bringing History Home: The Timeless Charm of Antique Bookshelves
Antique and vintage bookshelves infuse spaces with nostalgia, charm, and craftsmanship that feels anything but mass-produced. Beyond just storing books, these pieces make artful statements and inspire daydreaming about their origins and previous lives.
Each antique shelf tells a unique decorating story. Perhaps it once lived in a brownstone library, or a dusty French apothecary, or a stately English manor home. Let those rich histories kindle your creativity.
When thoughtfully chosen and styled, antique shelving transcends trends and passing years. The distressed finishes, quirks, wood stains, and imperfect details reflect the patina of time in a way no new shelf can replicate.
Hopefully this guide has provided helpful insight into selecting, decorating with, and properly caring for the antique bookshelf of your dreams. Always evaluate options carefully and ensure the piece complements your space functionally and aesthetically. The right vintage shelf will only grow more beloved over the years.
Go revel in the hunt through dusty antique stores, peruse resale shops and online listings, and don’t be afraid to bargain a little. Part of antique shelves’ allure is the excitement of the search and discovery. Once you find that perfect timeworn treasure, enjoy displaying it as the beautiful focal point it is. Your room and your book collection will thank you.