Nine ways to display your books on a shelf

I recently received a decorating S.O.S. call from a friend. She had just bought a beautiful set of bookcases, and as soon as they were installed in her living room, she eagerly placed all her books on the shelves. But something wasn’t right. It all looked a little blah. Unfinished. Even haphazard. Could I do something about it, she asked.

After staring at the bookcases for a few seconds, I made two quick fixes that took just seconds to do, without rearranging any of the books. And the difference was like night and day. First, I moved all the books forward. Just because a bookshelf is 16-inches deep does not mean you should push all the books to the back to make use of that depth. Next, I lined them all up about an inch from the front of the bookshelf. All of her books, of course, had different widths, but lining them up to the same point gave them a uniformity that was really pleasing to the eye. It’s amazing how those two simple adjustments could so change the look of the bookcases.

After working with design clients over the years, I’ve realized that a lot of people are at a loss when it comes to appointing their bookshelves. Sure, you can just cram a bunch of books in a row, like most people do. But is there an artful way to display your books so that you can show you’re as stylish as you are well read?

Beyond pushing your books forward, let’s look at some different ways to arrange them. Because a picture is worth a thousand words (sorry, books), I’ve photographed nine display configurations — some you undoubtedly already know about, and a few new ones that might spark some design inspiration. 

The Classic Vertical

A passion for antique purses

Lori Blaser’s home is a shrine to women’s handbags. With 2,500 pieces in her collection — the oldest of which dates back to the 16th century — she displays her treasures with the eye of a skilled interior decorator (which she is). Beaded and mesh bags nonchalantly dangle from the edges of painting frames. Tiny mesh vanity purses hang from a multihook stand to form a small “chandelier” that rests on a desk. 

The co-author of the book “A Passion for Purses,” Blaser has come to understand that these items are more than simple fashion accessories. They contain fascinating histories about their owners, the times in which they lived and the craftspeople who made the bags. 

But the Thousand Oaks woman long has had a personal affection for them, too. 

“I am just drawn to purses,” Blaser said, offering as proof a photo of herself at age 2 in her native Michigan, decked out in a puffy snowsuit and clutching a small purse. 

“I can’t tell you why, but I know it is something inside of me,” she continued. “Our family had modest means, and although I did not have the money to buy brand-new purses, I realized I did not want what everybody else was carrying. I bought ’50s purses made with alligator, crocodile and snakeskin with my babysitting money.” 

Blaser, who is in her 50s, explains her passion for purses truly ignited around the time she turned 40 and went to Europe for the first time. On a visit to the London Silver Vaults, the world’s largest retail collection of fine antique silver, she bought her first antique mesh purse, which was more than 80 years old. By then, she had retired from her telecommunications career to raise her youngest son, Brian. 

In 2003, about a decade after her London trip, she stumbled upon one of the most beautiful antique purses she had seen in her life. 

“I did not win that purse, but my heart started palpitating, and I thought at that moment I died and went to heaven,” she recalled. “There is something about this purse that marked the beginning of my obsession in earnest.” 

As her collection grew, Blaser built a network of fellow collectors from around the world. It led to her co-authoring a book with Georgia-based collector Paula Higgins, covering the history, art, design and functions of handbags through the ages. Both women are founding members of the Antique Purse Collector’s Society. This year, the group met in Amsterdam at the Museum of Bags and Purses at the invitation of its director, Sigrid Ivo. 

Today, most of Blaser’s collection focuses on handbags made prior to the 1950s, when even mass-produced bags had a degree of handcrafted artistry. But her oldest bag, a small, embroidered utility pouch, dates to about 1575. 

“I have purses from the 1600s, 1700s, 1800s and 1900s, which shows you a full-rounded progression of how women’s relationships with their handbags evolved,” she said. 

Early purses in her possession were plain and utilitarian, such as “pockets” American Colonial women wore around their waists. Others, dating from the Renaissance, were for the wealthy who could afford the best examples of beading, embroidery, carving and other forms of craftsmanship. 

What has never changed is the innate purpose: to move forward with life’s necessities at easy reach. 

Sometimes, Blaser’s connection to a purse is personal. Among her treasures is a photograph from about 1890 of a great-aunt carrying an elaborate mesh purse — the same one that now sits atop a chest of storage drawers filled with some of her most cherished handbags. 

However, she boasts that her proudest acquisitions are from previous Jewish owners and merchants, embodying some of their early struggles with fascinating stories. Consider the two purses (one from about 1675) originally belonging to Emma Henriette Schiff-Suvero, a 19th-century woman born in Vienna who married into an aristocratic Jewish family and who was a purse collector in her own right. Her collection was eventually bequeathed to a nephew, who left Austria for Switzerland in 1938 and was unable to export it under Nazi rule. It wasn’t until 2003 that the Austrian government returned the collection to the family heirs. 

To those considering starting their own collection, Blaser says there are still many from all eras, at all price points, waiting to be found. While the older beaded bags, like the ones making up a huge portion of her collection, are too fragile for everyday use, she said 20th-century beaded bags that are not in perfect condition or modern purses finished with antique purse frames are good, wearable ways to go. 

Blaser hasn’t forgotten that handbags are good for more than collecting. She suggests that purses from the 1940s and ’50s are great for today’s women for everyday use, especially because they are a great value and less fragile than purses made in the earlier decades. 

“I use a lot of ’50s and ’60s bags made in France that were expensive back in their day because they were handmade,” she said, adding if she were given $1,000 to buy the bag of her dreams, she’d go vintage over new any day. 

“You can buy these bags today for far less than they cost new in the ’50s and ’60s, and you have this gorgeous piece of art you can carry on your arm that’s uniquely your own.” 

This story originally appeared on 

Sotheby’s Auctions Hebrew Collection

Jacob Joshua Falk was home studying Talmud when a nearby gunpowder factory exploded. Trapped beneath debris with no escape route in sight, the 22-year-old Pole made a vow to God: if saved, he would study Talmud diligently. He immediately spied a clearing and crawled out of the rubble only to find that his entire family had been killed.

Falk kept to the vow he made that day in 1702 and completed “Penei Yehoshua” (the Face of Joshua), a three-volume commentary on the Talmud, today considered one of the most important of latter-day talmudic scholarship. Although Falk never reached the level of fame commentators like Maimonides or Rashi, devotees say his commentary is a must-read for anyone seriously studying Talmud.

But now Falk has posthumously reached a new level of renown in Jewish scholarship circles. At Sotheby’s two-day auction of Hebrew manuscripts last week, a letter signed by Falk sold for $72,000, more than four times the catalogue estimate of $10,000-$15,000, and a signed responsa collection by Falk’s grandfather sold for $288,000, more than eight times the catalogue estimate of $25,000-35,000.

The record-breaking Falk artifacts were two of 433 manuscript lots sold at the “Important Hebrew Manuscripts From the Montefiore Endowment” auction at Sotheby’s in New York on Oct. 27. This large auction indicated the price — literally — that people would pay for a tangible connection to rabbis past. The sales also set a new standard for the value of famous religious scholarship, bolstering a little-known market that commodifies artifacts of religious scholars of centuries past.

“It has never happened before that a collection of 400 manuscripts comes up for sale,” Goldman said, noting that in the last three decades he’s only seen a few dozen up for sale. “Here it is 400 manuscripts — it is like never before; there are very important manuscripts [in the collection].”

The letter and the book lacked the elements that most valuable manuscripts contain: they were neither illustrated nor illuminated, and didn’t contain unpublished or particularly important thoughts. But they were autographed. And it was the signatures that caused the frenzied bidding wars.

“These [autographs] don’t come up on the market every day,” said Yosef Goldman, an ultra-Orthodox book dealer from Brooklyn who spent more than $200,000 at the auction, buying some items for himself and others for an unidentified client in Los Angeles.

“The autograph has nothing to do with the importance of the book, but it [provides] a feeling that people can associate with,” he said. “They make it easier to identify with the rabbi.”

Goldman was one of the many ultra-Orthdox book dealers who flocked to Manhattan last week from cities as far as B’nai Brak, Buenos Aires and Antwerp for the auction. It was, as Goldman said, “the sale of a lifetime,” both for its size and for its contents. Some of the 433 manuscripts dated back to the 13th century. Some had never been published; others were the only existing copy. Of the lots, 313 sold for almost $8 million, the highest total ever for a sale of Hebrew manuscripts.

The Modern Orthodox English contingent of the Montefiore endowment trustees sat primly in reserved seats at the back of the demurely decorated auction room, watching the action unfold between the ultra-Orthodox book dealers and the officious Sotheby’s staff.

The dealers wore long black or pinstriped sartuks (frock coats), dinner-plate sized velvet yarmulkes or high-topped velvet fedoras; their faces were framed by straggly beards and thick peyot, or side locks. They spoke to each other in Polish-accented Yiddish, comparing catalogue notes, commenting sarcastically that one item or another was a “graiyzer metzieh” (a big bargain). Occasionally, a cell phone rang, playing a Chasidic melody.

“They all seem to know each other to a terrifying extent,” said James Stourton, deputy chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, who orchestrated the sale of the manuscripts.

“[The scene] is all pretty strange to the three trustees,” he said. “They keep saying how exotic they find it all.”

Although the dealers say that not all of their clients are ultra-Orthodox — there were representatives from university and city libraries at the auction buying some of the lots — most clients are ultra-Orthdox, people whose interest in the items is spurred by their knowledge of the texts themselves and their love of Torah.

“In this line, it is mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews,” said a dealer from Israel who called himself Tuporovich. “Others don’t even know how to read Hebrew.”

“This is something that represents Torah, and people love this. They recognize the builders of Torah, and they want something important [that connects to them],” said Rabbi Erman, a Bnai Brak dealer who spent $16,800 on a 15th-century parchment manuscript of the Shaarei Dura, a text on the laws of forbidden food and menstruating women, and $9,600 on a 17th-century paper manuscript of the Yotzerot, liturgical poems inserted in the benedictions preceding and following the Shema.

The manuscripts were primarily academic rather and originated from Europe and North Africa. They ranged the gamut of halachic, kabbalistic, liturgical, biblical, cultural, talmudic and epistolary texts from the 13th to the 19th centuries. In general, the manuscripts contributed to the understanding of the traditions, culture and practices of Jews in those places and times.

There was a 14th-century parchment copy of the Abraham Abulafia’s (1240-1291) Hayyei Ha-Olam Haba (The Life of the World to Come), listed at $25,000-$35,000, which contains explanations of the 72-letter name of God and claims to help man receive prophetic powers. The manuscript was written in a Hebrew calligraphy in black and red ink, and came complete with 16 pages of circular diagrams for meditation. It sold for $72,000.

A 15th-century Swiss Yom Kippur machzor, written in a serif-laden Hebrew script that had black-ink illustrations of the High Priest’s service on Yom Kippur was listed at $60,000-80,000 and sold for $153,600.

Sotheby’s even offered a lot containing 139 pages of letters and writings by and about Shabbetai Tzvi, the infamous 17th-century false messiah. It sold for $19,200, below the $20,000-35,000 estimate — perhaps indicating that only the artifacts of the pious sell well.

All the manuscripts came to New York from England. In 1869, Sir Moses Montefiore had founded the Judith Lady Montefiore College in memory of his wife, and had sanctioned the purchase of a collection of Hebrew manuscripts as part of the college’s endowment.

Born in 1784, Montefiore was the leading Anglo Jewish personality of the 19th century. Not only was he wealthy and philanthropic, but he exemplified the type of modern Jew who could engage with royalty and aristocrats without ever diluting his religious convictions or practices. When Queen Victoria invited him to dine in Buckingham Palace, he sent his butler ahead with a package of kosher meat so he would have something to eat. He also traveled the world lobbying for Jewish causes, for example, protesting blood libels in Syria, and building Jewish settlements in Palestine.

“He had an infectious belief in God,” said Rabbi Abraham Levy, trustee of the Montefiore Endowment, at a reception at Sotheby’s the night before the auction. “He served God not only as a Jew, but also as an Englishman. The synthesis of cultures, that was so common during the golden age of Spain [900-1200 C.E.] … was something that he was very proud of.”

The Montefiore Trustees are selling the manuscripts because they want to turn their attention from the preservation of old parchments and papers to living examples of Torah. The proceeds from the sale are going to establish a Kollel — a Torah learning center — in England for university-educated Modern Orthodox married couples, who will embody the synthesis of cultures that Montefiore himself practiced.

“It is our duty as trustees to obey the instructions left by Sir Moses Montefiore,” said Lucien Gubbay, chairman of the trustees of the Montefiore Endowment of Ramsgate. “He didn’t leave the money to produce a collection of manuscripts. He left the money to advance higher education.”

“We are very sad to break up the collection, but we felt it wasn’t morally right to hang onto them,” he said. “But we should turn them into what the testator would have wished … religious leaders for the next generation.”