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All My Bookcases Failed Me—Then I Found This IKEA Hack

One writer's hunt for the perfect bookcase for her library took an unexpected turn.

December  2, 2021
Photo by Laura Fenton

Like many people, the first bookcase I ever bought was IKEA’s Billy bookcase. Affordable and simple to assemble, my Billy lasted for a few years before starting to look worse for wear (and eventually falling apart). When I moved to my current apartment almost seven years ago, I bought a new IKEA bookcase that I thought was my library's soulmate: the 35-inch Hemnes bookcase. It was sturdier than the Billy, made of solid pine instead of particle board, and still very affordable. (I loved Hemnes so much that I even wrote about how great it is!)

The old bookcase Photo by Weston Wells
Supported by a... soup can. Photo by Laura Fenton

However, my husband and I are serious book lovers and over the years, even Hemnes didn’t hold up to the weight of our collection. I learned that not all solid wood is created equal: Pine is particularly soft, so the peg holes for the shelf supports eventually stretched so that the shelves got wobbly. Then, earlier this year, the bottom rung of our shelf split in two. (Readers: Don’t blame IKEA, it’s my fault, we crammed those books in and even loaded them up on top.) I ended up propping the whole thing up with... a can of soup. It was time to find a new bookcase, and I swore that I wouldn’t buy another IKEA bookcase.

Could Metal Bookcases Be My Best Affordable Option?

Our wall had room for a wider bookcase, so I was eager to find something wider and thereby gain more shelf space. Researching sturdier solid wood options, I quickly found myself priced out. Many people recommended the simple, metal ladder style shelves that are affordable and so popular these days. Neither size of CB2’s Stairway Ladder bookcases worked for our space; and Pottery Barn’s similar Temple Street model specified it could only support 140 pounds. I’d heard Room & Board’s Slim steel bookcases could definitely take the weight of a thousand books, but with no side supports I realized they were not a practical solution for my library— and probably better for a mix of coffee table books and objects.

Modular Bookshelves Weren’t The Answer, Either

Next, I investigated flexible, modular shelving systems like Vitsoe’s 606 Universal Shelving System and Rakks. The Vitsoe system, which I have long-admired, also proved too expensive for my budget. When I looked into Rakks, it was not as expensive, but not truly affordable, and I wasn’t 100 percent sure about the look. After seeing that a friend used IKEA’s Elvari closet system as a bookshelf, I also considered that system, but the supports were too industrial-looking to be front and center in our living room.

Custom Is Too Complicated—And Costly!

Custom bookcases would have been a great solution for our space, especially since there’s a weird bump out at the top of our wall, but finding a carpenter and designing the bookcases that we’d be happy with for years to come felt daunting. My brother-in-law suggested he could cut pieces of plywood for us in his barn and I could assemble them in situ. But when I started to calculate the cost of lumber, renting a van to transport the wood, and the value of our time, that didn’t feel like a winning proposition either.

Is IKEA The Best Budget Bookcase?

So, I found my thoughts returning to IKEA. When I’d written about the Hemnes shelves before, readers had chimed in to tell me about the many ways they’d hacked semi-built-in shelves with their Hemnes. Maybe I could figure out a way to make a new one last longer? In my googling of Hemnes hacks, I came across this shot on Pinterest. Here were three narrow Hemnes shelves pushed together to create one shelving unit: Genius! When I shared it on Instagram, a member of my Living Small community chimed in that she had done EXACTLY the same thing and DM’d me a photo-proof of concept!

This trio of narrow shelves was perfect for me because it made use of all my available wallspace. But, better still, the narrow shelves seemed like they would solve some of the problems we’d discovered with our older Hemnes. At a width of just 18 inches, each shelf would also be much less likely to sag. And with many fewer books resting on the base, I felt the risk of another piece snapping in half was greatly reduced.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“It is open on the ends, but when up against a wall on one side is a perfect bookcase and allows for bookends or plants on the open end. We have four of them. Sturdy, clean and modern looking. Middle shelves are glass, top and bottom shelves are metal. ”
— Nan G.
Comment

Of course, the shelves were out of stock at IKEA when I went to look for it.

However, I kept looking most mornings before IKEA opened because someone tipped me off that restocks disappear quickly. Finally, one day, three were available in my local store: I swooped in and purchased them. While assembling my new trio of Hemnes shelves, I discovered that IKEA has slightly tweaked the design in the years since I purchased my original Hemnes. Now, instead of peg supports for all four corners, there are clever little elbow-shaped pegs for the front side of each shelf, which I’m hoping means my new shelves will last even longer.

The new shelves fill our wall perfectly. In the first weeks they were up, they gave me genuine bursts of joy every time I looked over at them. (I had no idea how much my broken-down bookcase was bringing me down!) There’s also some breathing room for new books to come in, which feels so good. Now I find myself fantasizing about adding a little bit of trim to truly give my shelves a custom look—let the hacking continue!

Ta-da! Photo by Laura Fenton

Tell us all about your bookcase dilemmas—and successes—please and thank you.

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Laura Fenton

Written by: Laura Fenton

Laura Fenton is the No Space Too Small columnist at Food52. The author of The Little Book of Living Small, she covers home, design, and sustainability. Laura lives in Jackson Heights, Queens in a 690-square foot apartment with her husband and son. You can follow her on Instagram @laura.alice.fenton.

16 Comments

jpriddy December 19, 2021
I cannot tell you how useful and just plain wonderful this post is for me!
 
Nan G. December 17, 2021
We went with the Ikea VITTSJÖ tall shelving.
It is open on the ends, but when up against a wall on one side is a perfect bookcase and allows for bookends or plants on the open end.
We have four of them.
Sturdy, clean and modern looking.
Middle shelves are glass, top and bottom shelves are metal.

 
Author Comment
Laura F. December 17, 2021
I know parents love those for toys too!
 
cookbookchick December 16, 2021
From IKEA’s website: https://www.ikea.com/us/en/newsroom/corporate-news/safety-announcement-hemnes-bookcases-and-glass-cabinets-pubd05feb07
 
cookbookchick December 16, 2021
It’s a safety announcement about some of their bookcases.
 
Author Comment
Laura F. December 17, 2021
Thank you for sharing! It looks like the new ones are not included, but it's great to know IKEA is offering replacement pegs to improve the safety of the older Hemnes shelves! Take note everyone!
 
cinamibun December 16, 2021
I, too, have a shelving need for my books. I am surprised that shelving units from the Container Store were not considered. I got 3 metal shelving units which are pretty easy to set up and they not only hold the weight but look as great as having the preferred wood shelves and you can put them in a row to make a continuous look.
 
Author Comment
Laura F. December 17, 2021
I had Container Store's Elfa in my old apartment: A great mid-range option! However, with old plaster walls, they were not something I considered for my home.
 
Darra B. December 6, 2021
The Rams 606 Universal shelving unit is truly a work of art. Elegance in its simplicity. I understand the concern regarding the investment, but you will have them for life - I’ve moved with mine multiple times and am always able to reconfigure them to the new space. The system also allows your collection to shine - no heavy frames to detract from your book collection and never a concern about sagging. The shelves can also be hung different ways to vary the look. When you need to replace your IKEA Hemnes bookshelves in a few years, I wouldn’t forget about Vitsoe!
 
Author Comment
Laura F. December 17, 2021
SOMEDAY!
 
Fletcher December 5, 2021
I have the hardest time trying to find a spot for my bookcase to avoid fading. I don’t place my books in direct sunlight but the room is very light filled so hard to avoid sunlight altogether. Keeping the blinds closed is not an option as there’s only one window in the room. Anyone else have this problem?
 
Author Comment
Laura F. December 17, 2021
Unless you have a precious collection of first editions, I'd say just try to accept the fading as a sign that they have been loved a long time!
 
Allison T. December 3, 2021
Try flipping the shelves over. I have a particle board unit and shelves were really sagging. On a whim, I flipped the shelves over. It’s been two years now and the shelves are pretty much level and holding up extremely well. Maybe the initial sag “tempered” them. Super happy because these shelves fit like custom in a specific space.
 
Author Comment
Laura F. December 17, 2021
Yes, a classic trick! However, our issue was that the peg holes had stretched out, so there was no way to use the shelves flipped or not!
 
Patricia M. December 3, 2021
love it--and that side table is my bedroom nightstand! old art deco, right?
 
Author Comment
Laura F. December 3, 2021
A street find from my husband's bachelor days, but yes, that'd be my guess too: 20s-40s. Ours desperately needs the veneer replaced around the top--someday!