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When do books become clutter?

Our accommodation (our second home) has a large number of bookshelves in the living room (it is a very large room): 12 long bookshelves over 4 different racks.

My wife and I are vacillating as to how much to populate these bookshelves. We definitely don’t want the house to appear cluttered. I am thinking that:

  • We should only use decent-looking books
  • we should never fill a bookshelf by more than one row of books in depth.
  • we should probably totally fill about half the bookshelves, and fill the others by about one half of their capacity.

I should add that we have traveled extensively with VRBO and AirBnB (between June 2018 and September 2019, for instance, we traveled a lot, and we counted 72 different rentals). As guests, we really dislike places with no books at all, and value having access to a large number of books on location. So, if we listened to our own taste, we’d be fine having all 12 bookshelves almost full: it would not be hard because, in our main home, we have many thousands of books (definitely too many…).

However, we don’t really trust our own tastes to be that of the majority of our guests. What do you think?

Since it’s your own vacation home, I wouldn’t be overly concerned with whether full bookshelves are to your guest’s taste or not, but messy bookshelves are like anything else messy. And 12 bookshelves crammed with books sounds like an awful lot of dusting to do.

The more minimal an Airbnb is, the better, due to all the cleaning involved.

But you could try to market your place as a “Booklovers Delight” sort of thing.

Can you post a photo of how those shelves normally look?


And, only leave books that you won’t miss.
Some guests like to get better value for their stay and may souvenir some.


I would add books in good shape that are not too old because some old books smell like mildew.

There’s s bookstore that my daughter loves, she loves old books, but I always have to wait for her outside the store. That mildew smell triggers my asthma.

I wouldn’t fill the entire shelf with books. I would leave some space at the end to add small pottery or crystal bowls with candies, etc.


Instead of filling all the shelves with books, I would instead make use of any adjustable shelves to make space to display posters, paintings, fabrics, and other art. I will be giving up book space in the living room to smaller musical instruments once I get the shelving done in the office here.

And as a guest, I like having some empty shelf space that I can use to sort stuff out for use during my visit, or when packing to leave. Nothing drives me crazier than a host who knicknacks every flat surface away, leaving none for guests to use. It’s even worse when the tschotkes are breakable.


The number of books will grow. Guests will leave books they finished, and occasionally take one they started.

We tend to glance through the book piles on turnovers to make sure nothing inappropriate has been left, and do a full culling through of books once a year to keep them from over taking the house :grinning:.

We have accumulated quite a collection of children’s books, which it didn’t occur to us to offer from the start. Turns out grandparents love to read to their grand babies…


Books are never clutter. :slight_smile:

But bookshelves are awkward to clean. If you’re relying on cleaners it’s going to be hard. I have many books and need to put an afternoon aside for cleaning the bookshelves.

The rentals only have a small selection but they still need to be removed at every turnover, dusted, the shelves wiped and then returned to the shelves. I wouldn’t trust cleaners to do that and I wouldn’t want to do it myself.

Books will be taken - not because guests are thieves but because they want to finish the book.


We have a lot of books, some in the units and more in the hallway. People love it and sometimes mention that it’s what drew them to our listing. I grew up in a house with walls and walls of books (and LPs) and it never felt cluttered, so I have very strong opinions about books and how they are displayed, so consider all of this “IMO” ahead of time. If done correctly, they add texture and visual interest and not clutter.

For easy cleaning and to be gentle on the eyes, organization-wise, I recommend that a shelf has either all books or no books. If you do half a shelf of books and then a knick-knack next to them, that will be harder to clean and it makes both of them feel like clutter. And the whole room will feel subtly uncomfortable if there is even a single teetering bookend :grimacing:

Make sure that the books are all aligned at the very very front of the shelf (regardless of your personal preference), they will look tidier this way because different sizes (depth not height) of books will look more uniform and they sort of become part of the furniture or the architecture this way - and you won’t need to dust an inch or 6 inches or whatever of the shelf in front of them all of the time.

As far as how many shelves of books, generally, the more the merrier, but you do want a few shelves without, to create dimension. Sometimes it’s nice to have some large coffee-table-books displayed singly or in a set of 3 and they are the only type of book, along with atlases, that should ever be horizontal. I agree with @NordlingHouse that it is nice, as a guest, to have a shelf or two that is available for my use. But rather than completely empty, I put something like a pretty tray or a nice bowl. Because even better than a shelf for your stuff is a shelf with a way to organize your stuff, as you would have at home.

It feels better to take your watch off at night and put it in a hand-carved wood bowl rather than set it down loose on a shelf. I also put a tiny bowl or pretty china tea saucer next to the bed for jewelry. People will leave a lot fewer earrings if you provide something to stash them in. But be warned, they will also use that dish for disposable contact lenses, but it’s better looking for them on the floor. Though this seems like a detour from books it really isn’t. Shelves that don’t have books are best decorated with useful objects like trays and bowls (attractive ones of course).

The proportion of shelves with books and shelves without books will depend on the use of the room and the other stuff in it, it should feel balanced somehow. Get a good soft bristle attachment for your vacuum to dust to the tops of the books.

Though I do organize my own books by the Dewey Decimal system :nerd_face: , for an Airbnb, I think it’s more practical and a lot of extra fun to have no organization by subject or type at all. It promotes discovery and exploration, which is the very best part of looking at a book collection that is not your own. And in a practical sense, you never have to wonder where a book goes, you only have to fill a shelf, there will be a lot less stress for both you and guests. If the books look too organized, there will be hesitancy to touch them. Also, if you’re worried about the types of books you have, not organizing by subject will blend them.

You can always get some used books that are subjects that you don’t already have to mix into yours, for fun. I bought more or less random books, both new and used for our Airbnbs, strategically creating diversity and I’m always surprised at which books seem popular with different guests. If there are enough different types of books people are less likely to get caught up in getting offended by one of them. If you don’t like the Famous Serial Killers book, then you can just grab Golf Courses of the World and move on :slight_smile: If your listing has a full kitchen, don’t forget to add some cookbooks.

Never ever organize books by height or, god forbid, color. Magazines (which I adore) don’t belong on bookshelves unless they are special enough to be in a clear-top archival box, get a cute basket or better, a magazine rack.

And for the record, if a guest didn’t like having books for some reason, I don’t care, they can just get the hell out.


I have books which guests are welcome to read while here, and on another shelf some that guests are welcome to take if they don’t finish them by the time they leave. This probably wouldn’t work in an entire place rental, because they would get mixed up, but it’s easy in my home-share.

I’m an avid reader, but I don’t “collect” books. The ones I keep are the ones that were great which I might read again, or share with family and friends. The others I pass on or put on the “guest free bookstore” shelf.

Am at the point in life where I visualize my daughters having to sort through all my stuff after I die, saying “OMG, can you believe Mom kept this? It was a POS 40 years ago and it’s a bigger POS now.”


I just want to go on record as a lover of books and that I find a wall of books to be aesthetically pleasing. Some walls of books look better than others but they all look good to me. The only book decor trend I hate is the one that organizes books by color.

I’d love to see a picture of the set up you’re describing.

This is a great tip for cleaning. I always had mine pushed back to “use” the fronts for tchotchkes but the dust in the house is maddening.

I recommend a Ouija board for warding away undesirable guests. :wink:


I think you are referring to books being pulled up to the edge of the shelf? I found a picture online (these are not my books). The books on the left are pulled all the way to the front. I’d scootch em all the way so there is no shelf showing at all to gather dust. The ones on the right will obviously have a lot of dust collect in front of them, but it also looks cluttered on the right. The space itself, created by pushing the books back, visually becomes an additional object. And the shelf being a different color makes it worse, but that’s not typical.


Here’s a photo of a school librarian feeling proud about pulling the books forward on the shelf. But there is so much wrong in this photo.

  1. Why pull the books forward but still leave a one-inch lip to collect dust?

  2. More importantly, the people reading these books are no more than 4 feet tall, of course the books need to be pulled forward because it’s cruel to push the books further out of reach :joy:

I always had mine pushed back to “use” the fronts for tchotchkes

In your own home you should have them anyway you like (as long as it’s not by color).

The other maddening design trend with books is shelving them backwards (the spines inward) to “create a neutral palette”. WTF? For anyone who thinks it might be a good idea, I will remind you that the books were shelved backwards in Jack and Wendy’s apartment in The Shining, prior to their move to the Overlook Hotel to foreshadow Jack’s mental instability and future madness. So it does not look like a neutral palette, it looks like you are deranged. Just a PSA. I’m putting together a presentation.


Sorry, I was directing that to @KasualObserver.

I’d like to see this:


Oh yeah, me too! (sorry)

Here’s my PSA presentation:



It is great to read all the advice, thanks so much to you all!

This is why this place is so great. We had not considered the cleaning difficulty.

I will take a picture next time we are there and post it on this thread.

That will be hard for me! I am no collector but I only keep books I love and I have thousands :slight_smile: I’ll have to fortify myself to the loss ahead of time…

Another thought we had not had (not that we were going to put in horribly water-damaged books, but I am sure we would not have been as sensitive without your reference).

Great idea.

That’s where I stand :slight_smile: I am glad you think so too!

We are, so I see the problem now.

@JJD, I loved your detailed post. FYI, I grew up in the same kind of place. I can’t live w/o many books. Your specific thoughts on organization, proportion etc. are amazingly thorough and well analyzed. We are taking all of your advice and appropriating it for ourselves, thanks so much!

I know my sons will definitely say that about my books…

Loved the suggestion :slight_smile:

I had to laugh when I read this, made me think of HGTV… @JJD, your pics were great, particularly the last one! I laughed when I read your comment on color, then I laughed twice as hard when I saw the pic :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes:


Unless it’s a collectible/valuable book then having the books you love disappear is just spreading the love. You can always replace it in your collection if you miss it.


I’d say leave as many books as you can live without! And open shelf areas are nice for other things.
We have 2 small book shelves = about 4 @ 23" wide spaces. Which is plenty for a 200 sq. ft. place. They are sort of ranged by color (which I think looks amazing if you have enough books) and are hand picked by my Mom , who really knows books. The bamboo case is more full than in photo. If they want to take one, they can ‘pay Piggy’ a few quarters or dollars.!! Piggy is on a middle shelf there below the glasses.
In the binder, discreetly in sheet protector/folders in the back, are my memoires, they are pretty popular! x200526-025 (crop8)jp|550x499

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I need to update my photos (haven’t reopened yet - our area still has a high Covid rate.) The mix of books and “stuff” changes as I rotate things. Exposed shelf gets a quick swipe with a disinfectant wipe between guests, the entire bookcase gets emptied and each item/full shelf gets a dust/disinfectant wipe once a month. I ask guests to leave any items handled on the bed when they leave and they get wiped down with a disinfenct wipe. I have a variery of books, games, and decorative items. I provide a “lap desk” to make it easier to read in bed. Many of the reviews contain comments on the selection.

Before Airbnb this room was our “if I don;t know what to do with it - it goes in the spare room” area. In setting up for Airbnb, we had to rent a storage unit to contain the stuff - most of which is boxes of books! Looking for a new home with more room for shelves!

Every room in the house has books - I never consider them clutter! My kids may disagree but they can have one heck of a book sale when I’m gone!


There are now a couple of FB pages that rate people’s background views during Zoom meetings or TV appearances, since so many “newsmakers” now do Skype or Zoom interviews instead of standup or studio interviews. It’s pretty obvious watching news channels that many pundits have “curated” bookshelves (those are usually talking heads that are relatively empty) but that academics with messy desks and piles of books are the ones that make the most sense.

It’s also interesting to note that if the person being interviewed has a current book, it’s almost always displayed prominently on the bookshelves in the background.



I knew it was time to retire from teaching High School Lit when, on the first day of class, a student walked in, looked around at all the shelves of books and posters of authors etc. and asked: “Are you a HOARDER?”


And some have shelves full of guns in the background :scream:

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