Memphians At Home: A Renewed Obsession With Bookshelves

Home bookshelves fascinate as the new TV studio backdrops

CNN’s Anderson Cooper, at home, in front of a set of fine shelves.

All over the airwaves during the shutdown, talking heads have been appearing against a backdrop of their den or home office bookshelves, and we can’t help but be fascinated, getting a peek into the personal collections, collectables and obsessions of news personalities, journalists, pundits and actors, drawn into their libraries, pulled into their world on their bookshelf. 

Blame it on covi-clusion – impairment due to prolonged pandemic isolation – or virus-itis, but against his own better judgement, StoryBoard’s publisher couldn’t help but to share his, complete with a commentary, missing from any broadcast, that plays in our heads while we have watched, our thoughts drifting off topic, hitting the pause button and asking, What’s that on his shelf? 

While we were at it, we asked Memphis bibliophiles, bookworms and those practiced in some level of tsundoku (acquiring and piling up books) to share their bookshelves with us, along with some of their thoughts. Look for these stories in the coming weeks.

Mark Fleischer, Publisher of StoryBoard Memphis: Obsessive Arrangement

Like so many book lovers, my love affair with books began at a very early age. But an obsession with having my own bookshelves began – I will never forget this – when at eleven years old a saw for the first time a school friend’s bookshelves.

My sixth-grade friend Shawn, resembling a miniature late-’70s version of a shaggy Jeff Daniels, had a huge loft bedroom with a roughly six long by three foot high set of bookshelves. He had them lined with books alphabetized by author – impressive for an eleven-year-old – but here’s the kicker: he had the books organized by sections complete with carefully hand-written A-C, D-E, F-H labels on each of the shelves.

It was the second time in my young life that I understood what it felt to covet (the first time being a neighborhood kid’s totally cool MatchBox car case and MatchBox City!).

Weeks later, I did the same thing with my small set of bookshelves, carefully alphabetizing the books by author and affixing my own handwritten labels onto the shelves. When I finally had Shawn over and excitedly showed him how he had inspired me, his jaw dropped – literally, as kids do – and he pointed and proclaimed “You copied me!”

Man! Sorry. I just thought it was cool! It was first time I was ever accused of copying! It was also the last.

The Shelves

Don’t look, we’re not dressed. The shelves in a disassembled state.

The shelves themselves, a room-commanding 8 feet by 8 feet, built from pine boards 20 years ago in and for my divorcee loft apartment. With the help from my father, a dozen or more 8-foot 10x and 12×1 pieces of Home Depot pine: measured, cut, balanced, assembled, propped up, bracketed, stained, painted, and dressed up with crown molding and repurposed door frames. Built so that they could be disassembled, they’ve seen some additions and renovations, they’ve traveled across the country, been trimmed and repainted, dismantled and reassembled 3-4 times, and they feel 100 years old. 

Book Arrangement

How one arranges their books says much about a person’s organizational aspirations, their interior design and fengshui IQs, or reveals secret obsessions about order, balance, framework, symmetry.

Me, I am a traditionalist in book organization. I stick to organization by genres and sub-genres, topics and sub-topics, subjects and sub-subjects. You won’t find those color-coordinated arrangements here – how on earth is one supposed to find a book by its color? And how degrading is that to the book itself, to be arranged only by the looks of their covers?!

No, the only organization acceptable here is by genre/topic/subject. Obsessions are revealed here too. Apparently I have this thing for cities. New York in particular. And of course, Memphis.

Knick-Knacks, Momentos, Photos

What’s a book shelf without its owner’s life story, displayed by found or purchased objects?

Whether they be for conversation or for simple joyful reminders of people, places and times, or interests, mantras and philosophies, the objects on our shelves reveal who we are or who we aspire to be, what makes us laugh, what makes us feel, what makes us remember.

Two classic hand-cranked cameras – they both work – are reminders of a few years of film school. A Tony Montana action figure, purchased at a novelty toy store during a business trip in the ’90s, is just plain fun. The brass room number plate from Manhattan’s Gramercy Park Hotel, that was mysteriously extracted (by yours truly) from a hotel door during a 2003 Ian Schrager renovation, is a nostalgic memento of a late-’80s week-long solo rite of passage. And some book titles just seem to speak to our times: The Exorcist. The Long Season. In Cold Blood. Deliverance.

A Majestic, Stately Presence

A friend commented once, upon seeing them for the first time, that the shelves had a stately presence. Indeed, book shelves bring dignity to any room. They majestically preside over its activities, providing an anchor and framework like that of a classic storefront or the hearth of a fireplace. They are conversation pieces, and places for conversation. They instill a sense of credibility, of warmth, comfort, and thoughtfulness. They are more than a backdrop. They remind of me of who I am.

They looked particularly showcase-worthy in their first Memphis home, in a one-bedroom facing Union Avenue in the historic Kimbrough Towers.

Mark Fleischer is publisher of StoryBoard Memphis and host of the interview program StoryBoard 30.

Corey Mesler, Memphis Author: “We shelve by feel”

As far back as he can remember, Corey Mesler has always known he had to have his own bookshelves. “Since I first put my paperback Call of the Wild next to my paperback Mad about the Movies,” he said.

Corey Mesler is a widely-known and prolific Memphis author, and co-owner with his wife Cheryl of Cooper-Young anchor Burke’s Books. And as both a writer and the owner of an independent bookstore, he would seem to live by the adage that one can never have enough books.

“We have bookcases in every room save the bathroom,” he said. “We tried one in the bathroom but the books kept warping.”

“Our best bookshelves,” he continued, “are our floor-to-ceiling shelves covering about half of our back-bedroom walls. They were built by Cheryl’s brother Max and our friend Chuck.”

One of his favorite enhancements to their shelves are the lights they placed over their “fancy” bookcases, he said. “The lights hanging over our fancy bookcases are like illuminating vultures.”  

Some of his other favorite bookshelf items include knickknacks like his Todd McFarlane Beatles figures and a Lego Yellow Submarine.

For an owner of a bookstore, how the books are arranged would seem to be priority. Or on the contrary, a kind of opposite reflection of the order required in a store. “There’s not much rhyme or reason,” Corey said. “All our signed books are in one place. The mysteries are alphabetical by author. Each author is together. Poetry is in one case. Otherwise it’s inspired chaos. We shelve by feel. Cynthia Ozick is next to Charles Addams; Steve Martin is snug up against Joan Didion; Saul Bellow is next to Champion Dog, Prince Tom.”

More free time at home these days has rekindling creative passions for many – from sowing to cooking to planting – giving new meaning to the term “homemaker.” For others and their home libraries, not much has changed.  “Being agoraphobic I’ve been practicing for the quarantine my whole life,” said Corey. “Very little has changed. We have always appreciated our home library and what we do for a living. We are as blessed as the saints in their home above flying. We are as lucky as Lucky Larue.” 

And your library? What’s it mean to you? For Corey Mesler, who always seems to have extra packets of whimsy in his front pocket, it came down to this: “Only that they hold the accumulated wisdom of the ages, from Cervantes to The Autobiography of Carrottop.” <>

Corey Mesler is the author of dozens of titles in fiction and poetry. His most recent novel, Camel’s Bastard Son (review here), was released in April this year. Corey and his wife Cheryl have co-owned and operated the independent bookstore Burke’s Books, in Memphis’ Cooper-Young, since 2000.

Richard Alley, Memphis Author: “Bookshelves are the first thing to draw my eye” 

Memphis author Richard Alley’s eyes have always been drawn to bookshelves.

“Bookshelves are the first thing to draw my eye when I walk into someone’s house,” he said. “I seek them out. And I don’t care what’s on them — what you read — but just that you are reading. That you have shelves full of books and stories and adventures — that they’re full, and that people are taking pleasure in them.”

Like so many book lovers, the memories of his early obsessions with books and bookshelves are vivid. “When I was a kid, we lived on Central in Midtown and my mother would walk my sisters and me up to the library on Peabody to check books out. Later, she’d make a point to stop on her way home from work and get stacks of books for us. So when I got my first apartment, I had the standard, teenage cinder-block-and-pine-board shelves. Bookshelves have always been the most important article of furniture anywhere I’ve lived.”

The shelves themselves are “nothing special,” he said. “A couple are built-in on either side of the fireplace like a typical Midtown bungalow. The others — all mismatched — were collected over the years and lugged around from move to move.”

While the actual shelves may not be noteworthy, Richard said he likes to see books wherever he goes in the house. So, they are scattered all over. “Built-ins in the living room, three in my office, a couple in the hallway, and in the kids’ rooms. I like to see books wherever I go.”

His keepsakes and memories are there to behold as well. “There are drawings and paintings by my daughter and sister, photographs, a Pentax K-1000 camera, one of Shelby Foote’s pipes, Buddha figurines, pocket watches …” he said. “But probably my favorite items are pieces of art done by my father and grandfather. They were both longtime artists for The Commercial Appeal, and neither are with us any longer, so it’s nice to have those memories around.”

The pandemic has only strengthened Richard’s appreciation for his shelves. “I appreciate that I’ve collected so many books over the years, and that I’m now with them more as I work from home. Seeing the titles and authors’ names, and being able to pick one up and begin reading at will is immensely comforting and inspiring.”

As for order and organization? “No rhyme. No reason,” he said. “And that’s odd because I’m married to a librarian. I try to keep authors together, but that’s become a fool’s errand.” <>

Richard J. Alley’s stories and essays have appeared in the anthology Memphis Noir and in the magazines Oxford American and Memphis Magazine. His books include Five Night Stand and Amelia Thorn, which was released this month.

Julie McCullough, Memphis Teacher & Chronicler of Historic Houses

For Julie McCullough, who regularly posts her short stories and photos of historic homes of the South for her Instagram account @thisplaceinhistory, bookshelves have become simply a place to store a passion.

“A few years ago I discovered a new found passion for Memphis history, which prompted me to start thisplaceinhistory. As I did more and more research, my collection grew.”

Like in so many homes of the era, the shelves in Julie’s 1940 home are built in, on each side of the fireplace den.

“My favorite item on my bookshelves is a small, antique-looking chest that holds a collection of matches, mostly from Memphis bars and restaurants,” she said. “Every single one holds a special place in my heart and evokes fond memories.”

Julie McCullough posts regularly to thisplaceinhistory, “Chronicling American history one home at a time in #Memphis and beyond…”

2 Replies to “Memphians At Home: A Renewed Obsession With Bookshelves”

    1. These were all from submissions – we’d be glad to feature more, but only if folks are willing to submit their photos. We used hashtag #memphisbookshelves on Instagram and Facebook. If you know of anyone who’d like to be featured, please email us at

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