Using vintage books for decor can be a great way to add colourful and personalized vintage charm to your home. In this post you’ll find tips and things to think about when you’re choosing vintage books to add to your space.
Vintage Books For Decor – To Read, or Not to Read
Here’s a serious question: Have you read all the books that you’ve bought?
If I’m being honest, I think it’s safe to say that I’ve read very few of the books I’ve purchased.
But I love reading books, looking at books, holding books, smelling books (it’s not weird – they have a charming old scent), and shopping for books. I love basically everything about books. And I read a lot, finishing books quickly and often. However, most of the books that I read come from the public library – which is a very important public institution in my opinion!
As a couple, we do buy a lot of books. Every time we move, there seem to be more and more boxes of books. Books that we tend to purchase include our personal favourites that we want to read many times, cookbooks, and vintage books for decor purposes. My husband also has a lot of non-fiction reference books. But out of a whole wall of books downstairs, and all the other books scattered throughout the house, there are way more that we haven’t read than ones we have.
Collecting Books, for the fun of collecting books
I was reading a fascinating BBC article the other day about Tsundoku – or buying a lot of books and piling them up unread. Another term discussed in the article is Bibliomania – or “passionate enthusiasm for collecting and possessing books,” according to Oxford Languages.
I feel like both of these terms apply to my husband and myself. We just can’t seem to stop purchasing books, even though we read very few of them. But collecting and hunting for them is at least half the fun.
But Why Buy Books You Don’t Read?
I know there are lots of people who think it’s silly to buy books that you don’t intend to read. And I can understand why they might feel that way. But for me, books can add so much to a home or space even if you never read them.
Having shelves or whole walls of books adds instant visual interest to a space. If they’re orderly and contained, it doesn’t have to come across as clutter.
We buy vintage books for a few different reasons, including the fun of hunting for treasures. Vintage books as decor can contribute to the style and function in your home in several ways.
How Vintage Books as Decor Can Add to Your Home
Books can showcase your interests and personality
Having books to display can help to bring in your own personality if you select books that fit your interests. Maybe they’re a large coffee table book about dogs, fashion books, home repair guides, gardening books, biographies of people you admire, history books, or your cookbook collection. (Arguably if they’re books about your interests you might be more likely to read them, but if they’re vintage and outdated, you might not read them cover to cover).
Here’s an example of a book we chose because it speaks to us. We have a Welsh Terrier, and had an Airedale in the past. Therefore we love this reading primer called Spot, about an Airedale puppy who gets into all sorts of mischief.
The reader has been well-used and is just charming!
Vintage books can add character, warmth and visual interest
Using vintage books for decor is also a great way to bring in items that have character and warmth. A bookshelf that has fabric covered hardcovers with gold-lettered spines is instantly filled with charm. It’s difficult to duplicate that feel with a shelf of new books. All of the different colours, textures, materials, and fonts of vintage books make for delightful visual appeal.
Vintage books can serve as art
Decorating with books is also a great way to inject colour and art into your space. Many books are very colourful, or have graphic covers or dust jackets that can be displayed like art. I really like the bold text on the dust jackets of the books below and how they have a graphic advertising style.
Books can serve a functional purpose
Vintage books can also play a functional role in your decorating. We like to use books in horizontal stacks to prop up smaller decorative objects on shelves. This can help to emphasize those smaller objects so they don’t get lost in a large empty space. These vintage opera glasses would look small and like clutter if they sat straight on the shelf with so much empty space above them. By propping them up on a stack of books, it elevates them like the prized artifact in a museum display case. They become the star in that grouping, and the books play a supporting role, while also adding a pop of colour.
We also like to use books underneath lamps or other objects to help adjust them to a better functional height. We’ve done that here in the living room and on our bedside tables to bring our lamps to a better position for reading.
Things to Think About When Choosing Vintage Books For Decor
Obviously books come in a huge range of sizes, both in height and width. Very large books can be more challenging to fit on shelves, and very small books can be lost on shelves, depending on how they are displayed.
We have less tiny books, but have found a few special ones over the years. We have these two pocket-size map books of Paris and London, where we had our honeymoon. They both have really neat attached maps that unfold.
Tip: Shelf styling often involves decorating with varying heights of objects and creating visual triangles. Use the size difference of books to your advantage. When stacking books horizontally, place larger books at the base of the stack and narrow the pile gradually to smaller books at the top of the pile. This will naturally create a pleasing visual triangle.
There is a lot of healthy debate on the internet about whether you should put books in colour groups or rainbow order on shelves, instead of grouping by size, subject or author. I definitely don’t feel the need to arrange all of our books into colour groups, but you can emphasize pops of accent colours simply by grouping books in particular colours.
We have a long row of half height Billy bookcases in our bedroom, and I have several colourful groupings of books to bring in bright pops of colours to the largely neutral space. By grouping each colour together, it’s make a bolder statement that is less visually busy than if they were all jumbled together.
Tip: It can be fun to build colour collections of books. Decide on accent colours you want to introduce or decorate with, and then go searching, training your eyes to spot those colours. Some colours are easier to find than others. You will find a lot of blue and red books. We haven’t found that many yellow books, and I’ve rarely ever seen a vintage purple hardcover.
Spines and Titles
Many old vintage books have very plain, solid colour front covers. But they make up for it with the most fantastic spines, often with gold lettering or details. Others that are less old might have great graphic text.
I started collecting this stack of books below and I love how they have similar colour tones with some bold black in the illustrations or text, but are also visually lighter than a row of dark coloured hardcovers. They also contrast well with the inside of our barrister’s bookcase.
I also like to collect books that have great titles – whether that’s famous and recognizable titles, or quirky titles that grab your attention and make you want to pick up the book.
Tip: Look for books with great spines to put in groupings or in vertical piles, where the main part of the book you see is the spine.
Some books have the most boring spine ever, even completely unlabelled, but they make up for it with a great cover. Those are the kind of books that you might want to display facing outward, rather than between other books or in a pile.
I love the cover on this large Birds At Home book. I’ve got a special spot in mind for it on the built-in bookshelves we are building.
Tip: Look for books with great covers that you want to display facing outwards. Try standing them up at the back of a shelf and layering shorter objects in front.
Dust jackets became popular by the end of the 1820s to protect fabric bindings. Of course most of the earliest dust jackets no longer exist. As well, for several decades, dust jackets were quite plain and were often discarded before or after books were purchased. People preferred to see the beautiful book covers and spines on their shelves.
But after 1900, it was more economical to keep the bindings plain and to make fancier dust jackets. At that point, people were more likely to keep the dust jackets.
You might prefer how books look with the dust jackets on. Or you might find that you prefer a cleaner look with them off. For example, I love the moody and mysterious dust jackets on these two Mary Stewart novels. They have a great vintage mystery feel to them and they make me want to read the books.
With the dust jackets removed, the same two books are much more plain and a little nondescript. However, they would bring a bright pop of blue. It all depends on which look you prefer.
Tip: You needn’t feel limited by a book that comes with a dust jacket. If you’re unsure about removing it for displaying, you can store the dust jackets flat somewhere. That way, if you change your mind, you can always put them back on later.
When searching for vintage books for decor purposes, you will naturally be drawn to books on topics you enjoy. My husband has collected some vintage biographies and history books. Meanwhile, I’ve started a collection of gardening books that I’d like to keep adding to. I’d also love to find some vintage books about sewing and dressmaking some day.
Tip: Some used bookstores will helpfully sort their books by genre and topic. But be prepared to sort through random and unsorted books to find a perfect gem to add to your collection.
Hardcover or Softcover
Though there were some examples before that time, paperback books didn’t really take off until 1935 when Penguin started publishing them. They were less expensive than hardcover books and easier to carry around for travelling and working. Since many paperbacks are more vintage than antique, they can be much less ornate and more bold and graphic. They can feel more casual than antique hardcovers.
Because I enjoy all things aqua, I also like these black, white and aqua graphic paperback covers.
In contrast, hardcover books – especially those with fabric-bound covers and gilded spines – appear much older and bring warmth and elegance to any shelves they appear on. Here I have an illustrated Jane Eyre, “The Hat on the Bed”, and “The Cruel Sea”, and I like the contrast of the gold lettering with the casual, textured wool baskets.
Tip: Think about your decorating style and whether more antique hardcovers or more vintage modern paperbacks will suit your style better. But don’t feel limited or like you have to choose just one or the other. There are a whole range of styles within both hardcovers and paperbacks and you can achieve an eclectic mix by decorating with both.
Sets, Series, or Collections
Choosing and displaying books in a series, set, or collection is a great way to make a bold impact through visual repetition.
One example of this is our growing collection of vintage Penguin and Pelican books. The bold bright colours and graphic white stripes on the spines make a big statement on the ledge in our stair landing.
Another example is a set of books called The Young Folks Library. We have seven of these books but there are more and I’d love to add to our collection some day. I fell in love with these colourful and graphic spines with the orange, turquoise, and black stripes. They also make a bold statement and are great in our barristers bookcase because they stand out so nicely.
To see these books in the barrister bookcase, check out the post about vintage barrister bookcases.
Tip: Look for interesting sets of books to make a visual impact on your shelves. Don’t forget about encyclopedia sets, and even a large number of yellow National Geographic magazines can make a bold statement.
Take into account the price and rarity of books when you’re making purchases. Absolutely, feel free to purchase rare and expensive books that you love and display them. We have paid more for some really neat books here and there, but I’m not aware of any rare copies that we own.
However, when we’re buying books mainly for decorative purposes, it’s best to keep costs down for each book. It can take a lot of books to fill shelves so finding less expensive books will help your budget stretch further.
I’m not sure if this book of poems by Whittier is rare, but it sure is fancy! In this case, it has both a nice spine and cover so we can display it in a variety of ways.
Tip: You might know a book is rare and worth a lot. But, once you add it to a row of books on a shelf, it won’t bring any more decorative impact than a cheaper book. Give rare or special books a prominent display spot. However, when building up your collection to fill shelves, look for affordable books at places such as used bookstores, thrift stores, and community, school and library book sales.
The age of the book or the era it’s from will dictate a lot of things including the cover and the spine design. You might enjoy books that are from a particular time period because of how they look. Or maybe you enjoy learning about the ideas/history of that time.
I find vintage etiquette books and cookbooks fascinating as a view into the lives of housewives from the late 1800s to the 1960s. Below are my two favourite vintage cookbooks. One is a French Fives Roses cookbook from 1915 and I just love the green and red and the illustration of the woman on the cover. And I also have a 1950 first edition of the Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book which has a lovely cover. In our new kitchen, I don’t have any open shelves to display these, but I have plans to change that.
Tip: Think about your decorating styles and eras when choosing books. But at the same time, don’t be afraid to contrast with eclectic choices that interest you. Think about eras in history that interest you. Then look for books that you’ll like to flip through, read and display to show your personality.
For more vintage related blog posts, check out The 7 Best Reasons to Buy Vintage Decor, and The Thrill of the Find.
To see some more of our recent vintage book purchases, check out Our Favourite Summer Vintage Finds.
Vintage Books for Decor
Vintage books are one of the items I most love to decorate with as they’re so versatile. You can highlight a particular book with a great cover, add a pop of colour with a grouping of books, or bring in function by using a pile to prop up other decorative pieces. You’ll love decorating with vintage books no matter how you use them!
I want to hear from you. Have you read all the books you’ve bought? Do you buy vintage books for decor purposes? Do you have strong feelings about putting books in rainbow order? Why do you love buying vintage books? Let me know in the comments below.
All the best,
I love and have A LOT of vintage and antique books. This is a great post bringing up all sorts of considerations and ways for use and display. Great post!
Thanks Anja! I’m glad you love vintage and antique books too.
What a thorough post! Loved it. I have the tiniest vintage book collection, but want to grow it. When I can find them at a bargain, I pick them up! And smelling books is totally NOT weird.
Haha! I’m glad I’m not the only who smells books! (Sometimes I write things and then wonder if everyone will think I’m super weird 🙂 ) Thanks Sylvia. I hope you enjoy growing your vintage book collection!
I have so many vintage books around my house and I’ve honestly never even thought to crack them open. What an interesting post! Thank you!
You’re welcome Kyrie. I feel like I really want to start reading a few of my vintage books because there must be a few gems. But when I’m looking for something to read I always grab a new book instead. Vintage books sure are fun to browse through though.