Up, down, & sideways- shelving your books

When you’re opening a bookstore, probably the last thing on your mind is how to shelve your books.  You just get some cases and put them on, right?    Wrong.  Particularly if you’re building your own cases, you want to determine HOW you’re going to display your books first.  Otherwise you’ll get stuck with a shelving system that doesn’t work for you or your customers and costs you time and money to redo.


The key part to consider is what KIND of books will you be selling.   If it’s almost all paperback, you’ll want to use a different system than if you’ll be carrying only hardcovers.

Paperback piles

Piles of mass market paperbacks
Piles of mass market paperbacks

Advantages: Piled paperbacks are easier to read.  If you note, the writing on the spine is generally oriented so you can read it without having to twist your neck around.  This makes it easy for customers to browse for titles.  It also makes it easy for them to pull out a whole section if they decide they want everything by an author.  It’s just grab and go!

This system is also very stable.  You can half half the shelf empty and books won’t fall off.  It’s also easy to fill gaps by turning books face out without having to worry about nearby books tipping into them.  (if you build your own shelves, you’ll waste less space and face out books will look nicer)

You can make these shelves much shallower than normal, which means you can also have wider aisles… or be able to fit another freedstanding case or two in the store.

Disadvantages: Piles get heavy, fast.  Piling really only works with mass market paperbacks, kids chapter books, and those darn “not quite a trade back, but bigger than a normal mass market paperback” books that some publishers have started producing in the last few years.  Trade paperbacks, hardcovers, and oversize books don’t really pile well because of the weight and the variation in size.

The other downside with piling is that frequently customer put the book back on the top of the pile or an adjascent pile instead of where if belongs alphabetically.

TIP: Don’t pile more 10″ high for adult books, or more han 8″ for kids’ chapter books.  Otherwise the weight starts to become difficult for customers to lift.

Straight up and down, library style

Straight up and down
Straight up and down

Advantages: This is the style most people are familiar with so they can quickly figure out where the book they’re looking for is. It’s also very easy for them to put the book back exactly where they found it, so the maintenance is the lowest of all the various systems.

Because books aren’t supporting the weight of other books, you can also mix and match several different sizes of books without having to worry about whether the pile is stable.  Customers don’t have to lift more than a single book at a time.

Most commercial bookshelves are designed with this display method in mind, so you have lots of options.

Disadvantages: The titles on the spine are written to be read when the book is laying on its side.  This makes browsing titles hard.  Customers may quickly get a crick in their neck.  Customers wearing bifocals may also have difficulty reading the titles.

The versatility of mixing together sizes can also be problem here because mass market paperbacks mixed in with tradepaperback and hardcovers may end up vanishing between the books or pushed behind them pretty quickly.  You may also end up with books wedged into “triangles” as they bend around smaller neighboring books.

Because of wide variety of sizes, you may also end up with big open spots you can’t actually fit books in.

One other issue is that if the shelves aren’t sufficiently full, the books may just plain fall off the shelves.  This is most likely if you’re in an older building with a floor that’s not particularly level, but can happen even on dead level shelves.  Be prepared for the occasional crash noise if there’s gaps.  (buy some bookends!)

It’s also harder to display books face out on shelves designed for this because of the depth.  They may look like they’re swimming in the space.  They may also end up deeply in shadow and be hard to read.

This system can also be rough on the edges of dustjackets unless you put a cover on them since they’ll be jostled constantly.

Mix and match!

Mix and match
Mix and match

Advantages: You get a little bit of the strengths of both systems.  It’s easier to read the mass market paperbacks and they don’t get lost between the larger books.  The stacks of mass markets can serve as anchors between rows of larger books to keep them from tipping over and falling.

Disadvantages: You may end up with weird gaps because of mixing together the types. It’s also difficult to maintain alphabetical order.  People are confronted with two different ways to put the book back and often you’ll end up with mass markets in the trades and trades awkwardly shoved on the top of a pile of mass markets.  It’s the highest maintenance for organization.

TIP: for this mix and match system you may want medium depth shelves.  (about 6″)   Yes, some trade and hardbacks will protrude over the edge… but your mass markets won’t look like they’re swimming around in all the extra space either.  Face out books won’t be in shadow. editor’s note: a little slatwall shelf works great for a mix and match section.

Everything face out

Advantages: Everything is immediately visible and impulse buys are high.  Very low maintenance.

Disadvantages: Takes up 10X as much space as any other method.

Note how I didn’t include a picture here.  Unless you have oodles and oodles of space, this method isn’t going to work for a whole store.  The occasional endcap or featured book table is as far as most stores can afford to take it. If you’re doing very high end rare books that people should really only handle on tables, this way be a viable option, but 99% of stores can’t afford to use this method.

The book explosion

Yes, it looks like a book filled bomb has exploded here...
Yes, it looks like a book filled bomb has exploded here…

Advantages: Nobody feels bad about messing up the system.

Disadvantages: Nobody can find anything.

It’s pretty well inevitable with a bookstore you will end up with some oddly sized items or items waiting to be shelved that will end up looking like an untidy pile in no particular order.  If you have a bookstore cat or dog, they may also decide this is a great pile to sleep on…

No matter what you do, there will be days where it the children’s section looks like this.  Kids don’t put books back where they found them.  Or they put them back in the wrong place, upside down, or backwards.  Give up now.  No matter how carefully you plan your shelving system, there will be days that the kids section looks like this.

Build your own or buy them premade?

Once you’ve figured out the system you want to use, you’ll better know whether you feel up to a carpentry project or not.  Most premade bookshelves are usually designed for the library style shelving, but a little searching may yield ones suitable for the other methods.  If you really want to go all out with the face out books, you could even opt for gridwall or slatwalls!

Either way, make sure you go in with a plan or your bookstore may permanently look like that book explosion picture!

Facebook Comments

Related post

12 Comments

    Avatar
  • Two factors should be uppermost in any process requiring a retailer to make a decision about anything in their shop.

    1. Never confuse the customer!

    In the case of shelving your books – why create a hodgepodge which could interrupt your customer’s line of thought – they have entered your shop with one thought in mind – to buy a book. Anything that distracts them from achieving their goal is bad for your business.

    If everyone else stands their books on end rather than stacking them or doing a mixture of the two – why would anyone want to do it any other way? Your customer is used to seeing books displayed in this manner and has put up with this particular crick in their neck for many years.

    Being a rebel without a cause is one thing but this business is difficult enough to get off the ground without exploring your bent for interior decorating. The K.I.S.S. system will serve you well.

    2. Speed & Efficiency serve everyones interests most of the time.

    You should be able to file your books quickly in a place your customers can find them quickly – if you don’t consider that your highest priority you will quickly find yourself at home surrounded by books you couldn’t sell.

    Reshelving books in a system that stacks books while keeping them in alphabetical order is too time consuming – and somewhat unnatural for customers to easily pull and reshelf. (I now understand why one of my less-than-supportive competitors suggested that we stack our books when we first started in the business)

    It took us several thousands of dollars invested in bookcases bought from many sources before we finally realized our stupidity and started building our own bookcases. All the other bookcases are in landfills whereas the ones we built ourselves are still in use – many of them 20 years old.

    Make it as easy on yourself as possible in the beginning because, if you do it right, the trickle of books you are now handling will eventually become a Niagara Falls. Making adjustments then will be difficult.

      Avatar
    • 1. Stacking books gets more on the shelves, if they are the right books then that creates more sales.

      2. I have been to literally hundreds of UBS’s, almost all of them use the “stacking method” so it would appear to me that would be the norm. The biggest and most successful booksellers in the south *stack* their books. Mckay anyone?

      3. I have had several customers comment that they like the way we do our shelves because they can read the titles easier.

      4. That hodgepodge you speak of results in many sales of HB’s that would not sell if they were relgated to a HB section in a corner of the store. Keeping all of an authors books together make much more sense to me than sending the poor customer all over the store trying to find an author.

      Bottom Line: People come in looking for books, if they are in order, easy to find and priced right they will buy them. They could give a fig as to whether they are sitting on their sides, or standing upright.

        Avatar
      • I’ve had the “mostly stacked” system for 20+ years (between myself and previous owner). If you’ve got lots and lots of mass market paperbacks, this is pretty well the way to go.

        Mind, I ONLY keep one copy of a book on the shelf because of space constraints. So if I separated the few hardcovers I have to somewhere else, or did it with the trade paperbacks, people would often assume I did not have the title at all. Since it’s right there, customers may opt for the more expensive trade or hardcover because I don’t have a mass market of the title. If the two style had been separated, they would have looked at the author they wanted, seen I had no mass market and moved on without looking at the smaller selection of hardcover. If it’s right there, they may buy the hardcover they’d never consider because it fulfills their desire to have the book NOW.

        As to confusing the customers, I get an amazing number of comments on how well organized everything is. of course I’m up the street from a dealer that double stacks them on the shelf. Ever row of books has ANOTHER row of books behind it… a totally different row of books. It’s crazy.

  • Avatar
  • The methods in this article can also be useful for people like me with lots of books on two walls of bookshelves. I categorize mine into subject areas so I can find what I’m looking for quickly. When I go into a bookstore, I also want to find what I’m looking for without having to thumb through lots of others I’m not interested in.

    What I dislike in a bookstore is having books down on the bottom shelf so that I have to stand on my head to read the titles, or get down on the floor. One of my knees, after repeated athletic injuries, won’t bend all the way, so getting down there and up again is more effort than I think it’s usually worth.

    And some floors are not what I want to sit on anyway.

    Bottom line: I don’t buy books from the bottom shelf.

      Avatar
    • There’s an article on planograms that address xase layout more specifically:
      http://bookshopblog.com/2007/12/06/have-you-planogrammed-lately/

      We know people don’t like those bottom shelves so we stick all the “special request” or overstocked stuff down there. 99% of people won’t get down on the floor to look at books down there, but for the 1% that really want foreign language books, they’re willing to pull up a stool and sit and browse for an hour.

      I’ve also got two heights of stool. One for regular sitting, one for checking the bottom shelf. But when we have someone looking at the special books I bring them both. The taller one isn’t to sit on, it’s to use as a hand up and down. That little bit of extra seems to make the difference on whether people are willing to get down there or not.

      There are a few sections that tend to overrun their space and extend down to the bottom shelf from sheer necessity. But we always try to shuffle them back up as soon as there’s space. As soon as the bottom shelf books get shuffled up, they start selling again. It’s like magic. If it’s below people knees, it might as well be on mars.

  • Avatar
  • One thing to watch for is that a line of books standing on the bottom edge not get so tight that it is difficult for the customer to get them out or replace them in the same spot.

    Most customers will put a finger on the top of the spine, tilt the book a bit then pull it out. If it does not slide during the initial ’tilt and pull’ they might tug harder on the top of the spine and damage it or perhaps tear the dust jacket. This of course would devalue the book especially if it is new.

    As a buyer I think having the books stacked is good because of the visibility and of course I find that the book I want is on the bottom. In pulling out a stack to get to the bottom one I’ve found more than once I find a book in the middle I would not have noticed had I not had to fiddle with the entire stack. I’ve re-shelved the original and then bought one from the middle.

  • Avatar
  • Very interesting discussion.
    I don’t ever recall seeing a store stacking books but only get to visit bookstores while on vacations nowadays.

    So I admit to being very surprised that almost all of the other respondents have opted to stack books on the shelf.

    I hope you are all doing great sales volumes using your present methods.

    Good luck

  • Avatar
  • “those darn ‘not quite a trade back, but bigger than a normal mass market paperback’ books that some publishers have started producing in the last few years” HAHA–I never know what to do with these!

    We stack the mass market paperbacks only when we HAVE to. I’d much rather have them up and down on the shelves, but we are SO packed that may of the authors are stacked. However, we like to have everything alpha. by author’s last name so we only stack if there’s enough of one author’s books to make stacking worthwhile (i.e.–we’ll stack Stuart Woods with Stuart Woods but not with Sheryl Woods, etc.).

    As for books on the bottom shelf, we tried not to use the bottom shelf or the top shelf, but now we have to use both since we’re so packed. I’ve learned that well-known authors get bought from the bottom shelf (Nora Roberts and David Baldacci are both on the bottom shelf) but people won’t browse for new stuff down there (same with the shelf that is above 6′).

    We also keep all the fiction together except for the Westerns, SciFi/Fantasy and Christian Fiction. We don’t break up as many genres as other bookstores. Makes it MUCH easier for us and we have very few complaints this way.

      Avatar
    • I refer to those as PITA size: pain in the ass. They’re just a little TOO big to stack on the shelves with the mass markets, but they’re not big enough to not slip behind the trade sizes. They are a complete pain to display.

  • Avatar
  • When I bought my store, the shelves were all set up for library-style shelving. It is a nightmare to keep straight. A few items sell, and everything falls off the shelf! The previous owner wasn’t exactly a carpenter and my building isn’t exactly “level” or “well-built.”

    I’m in the process of replacing all the shelves with 1’x1’x9′ cubes, like many larger stores I’ve seen have. That way, I can have library-style shelving for my larger non-fiction books, and paperback piles for my fiction paperbacks.

  • Avatar
  • I agree completely with Nora. Yes, PITA!
    We’ve also gotten good comments about the stacking, especially since many of our customers are older. We have one step stepstools in every isle for getting to the bottom shelf or the top one, plus 2, two stepstools for the walls, where book are stacked sorta high. I also have two rolling secretary chairs that get used a lot.
    We’re lucky that we get lots of compliments on our store layout too. Not only do we have everything in categories and then alphabetized by author, but with the authors who have lots of books, the titles are alphabetized too.

  • Avatar
  • If your life’s desire is to give the general public a pain in the neck then stack your books on their side rather than up and down. You know like every library in the US. Also, if they pick a book off the shelf and then return it, you know they won’t put it where they got it from.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *