“This is really the money shot for this hotel,” said Philip Blackwell, gesturing at a marble fireplace, soft-lit lamps with printed shades, and books, books, books.
He was showing off the library at the Ham Yard Hotel in Soho, for which Blackwell’s company Ultimate Library selected about 5,000 books for the shelves, an act of curation that’s literary and visual.
Ultimate Library sells books by the meter to luxury hotels like the Ham Yard. Founded in 2011, it has capitalized on an explosion of interest in books as decorative objects, shown plainly in popular bookshelf images on Instagram and Pinterest, with the hashtags #shelfie or #bookstagram. Books can be aesthetic signifiers, colourful set pieces of sorts, their spines telegraphing a certain gravitas — or a certain playfulness, depending on how they’re arranged. “I like to compare physical books to candles,” Blackwell said. “Light bulbs do the job, but there’s a strong aesthetic of a candle that puts soul into a room. Books do that, too. They create theater and drama.”
Blackwell, 60, is erudite, affable and well read; he says he gets “twitchy” when he doesn’t have a book on him. He comes from family that has been in the book-selling business since 1879, when one of his ancestors founded Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford. Blackwell was involved with the company until 2006, when he stepped down as CEO of the book-selling arm and began traveling while on gardening leave.
It was then that something started to bother him: In the hotels where he stayed, the libraries were ill kempt, full of what he called “orphan books.” They were also, apparently, ugly. “Hotels would put so much effort into every other aspect of interior design, but not books,” he said. That led to Ultimate Library, which Blackwell affectionately calls his “gap-year project gone wrong.”
The company has selected books for clients in more than 40 countries, including the Philippines, Greece, the Maldives and Tanzania. In addition to hotels, they include restaurants, private apartments, shops and boats (in case, for example, your yacht lacks a suitable library).
Ultimate Library honours highly specific requests: a restaurant in Paris that wanted only books with red spines, or another client who wanted a library based around the subjects of China and horse racing.
Books as design objects are nothing new. In the 1820s in Britain, custom-bound books started to become popular for elites, with collections that were meant to be uniform for a single family, sometimes bearing their crest or other signature design. The concept of collections trickled down into the mass market. In the 1920s, American publishers like Modern Library put out reissued set of classics with pretty spines that you could buy as a set: starter kits, of sorts, both for reading and showing off your reading.
The rise of the #shelfie has created a whole new economy of books-as-backdrops. At the high end of the market is Ultimate Library, which peddles what Blackwell calls “intelligent luxury,” books handpicked one by one to give a highly specified feel to a space. Blackwell said prices range from roughly $2,000 for small collections to $150,000 for whole libraries on a grander scale.
But there are also DIY options for anyone interested in pulling together a pretty library quickly. Nancy Martin, the owner Decades of Vintage, sells vintage books by the foot, in sets by color or style. One foot of blue or red books costs $68; you can get rainbow shades for $80.
“My theory is that before social media, you decorated your living space and then you went and lived in it,” Martin said. “Now, with the onset of pictorial engagement, you have people who want to be influencers or popular online, and the way to do that is new content. So people have started styling for holidays or seasons, and just making tweaks to their living environments. Books are a really inexpensive way to decorate.”
Her colors sell seasonally. “Around this time of year people start buying green, and in the summer, aquas and turquoises and yellows,” Martin said. “In the fall, what a phenomenon. People buy brown and brick and terra cotta and orange.” Around the holidays, people will buy gold and white, or sometimes special collections she makes of red and green. Blue is evergreen.
It’s easy to feel a little uneasy about the idea of books intended explicitly for staging photos. (The old decorator’s trick of arranging them by the rainbow is particularly polarising; Kinsey Marable, a private library curator with clients including Oprah Winfrey, said, “I really scoff at that. I think it’s just ridiculous. It’s just absurd.”) Then there’s the obvious question: Are people actually reading any of these books?
Blackwell thinks they are, though even if they aren’t, there’s still value to it. “Someone might see a book on a hotel shelf they’ve always wanted to read, and then it’s in their head, that title, and they’ll carry it with them later,” he said. And even if nobody does, clients are at least buying books, some of which no one wanted to read in the first place, giving them a second life.
Chuck Roberts, a used-book seller, calls this “book rescue.” He had always sold decorative books in his stores and eventually started a side business, Books by the Foot, as a way of repurposing books that wouldn’t sell in his stores: a health or diet book that’s gone out of fashion, or a Stephen King best seller, of which the store has hundreds of copies. Almost all these books would be pulped by other book dealers, Roberts said.
Books by the Foot sells by the color (“Rainbow Ombre,” a best seller, goes for $69.99 per foot) and by subject matter, including “Architecture” and “Well Read Bibles.” The company also does styled collections around themes whose names are reminiscent of air fresheners. “Cape Cod” is a best seller; there’s also “Irish Stout” and “Whispering Willows” and “Modern Enchanted Forest.”
“I went to the Aran Islands a while ago, and they have all these sweaters there, and I felt we could duplicate that feel with books,” Roberts said. “So that’s our ‘Aran Islands’ mix, which sells pretty well.”
At Vintry & Mercer, a new boutique hotel in the City of London, the lit-mosphere created by Ultimate Library might be best described as Funny Money. “We were really focused on location here, which is the City, with its financial history, but also East London, which has a certain quirkiness,” Blackwell said.
In an coffer along the high perimeter of the hotel’s downstairs library, all out of reach, are “Kudos,” by Rachel Cusk; “The Last London,” by Iain Sinclair; “Empire of Secret,” by Calder Walton; and a collection of Virginia Woolf. The spines are mostly shades of white and gray and black and brown to match the ceiling, which is wallpapered with a vintage map.
But there are some light blue spines that pop out, to match the robin’s-egg blue of the walls. “Look at those accents,” Blackwell said.