Year of the Clean Person: This ​February, Reclaim Your Bookshelf


Year of the Clean Person is guided yearlong cleaning and organizing project; its focus is on tackling areas or tasks that are often overlooked in daily or weekly cleaning sprees and can be overwhelming when it comes time to rassle them back under control. This month, we’ll be getting our bookshelves in tippy top shape.

Here we go! Are you guys excited to get into the first of the labor-intensive YoCP tasks? I know I am!

In January you should have all made your lists indicating which of the monthly projects you plan on participating in, as well as any projects outside of my prescribed list that you want to take on. I’ve seen a number of your lists and they’re great! I also got enough requests for an email newsletter to support our YoCP efforts that I made one for you. Please sign up! It won’t be overly frequent, but the newsletter will contain tips and tricks, as well as assorted natterings from me. You can read the first few missives here and here for a sense of what’s to come. For other YoCP updates and nudges, follow me on twitter and/or kinja.

But enough of this rambling! We’ve got work to do.

The first two things to know about our February YoCP assignment, Reclaiming Your Bookshelf, is that it will be a dirtier and more labor intensive process than you think.

I say that not to discourage you, but so that you can be realistic with yourself about the effort involved, and can set aside an appropriate amount of time to complete the task. Unlike some of the projects we’ll take on as the year unfolds, the bookshelf reclamation is really one you should aim to complete in an evening (a long, long evening) or weekend. Which is to say that this needs to be a fairly focused effort—the problem with breaking something like this up over several weeks is that you’ll end up living with a horrible mess of books strewn all about your home and dust bunnies everywhere and then you’ll get frustrated and give up and then it’s Gray Gardens.

Don’t let Gray Gardens happen to you. Plan to bang this one out in a single go.

Quick note on this: If you have a vast bookshelving system, or multiple bookshelves in the home, break out the reclamation into stages, with a goal of completing each stage in a single go. So your list might look like 1. Living room bookshelf, left half—Saturday; 2. Living room bookshelf, right half—Sunday 3. Office bookshelf—Tuesday night; 4. Bedroom bookshelf—Thursday night.

Which leads me to this news: Yes, I’m having you make another list. I know! But this one is a much quicker one to pull together and also I have my reasons. Three of them, to be precise:

1. Making a list before you jump into a big project gives you a roadmap of what’s to come, which will serve a few purposes. It will force you to be realistic about the time commitment you’re making; it will help to keep you focused when you’re mired in the muck of the task ahead; it will allow you to know before you start the project what tools and cleaning products you’ll need on hand. If you need to repeatedly break to haul the vacuum out of its storage space, or run to the market for more trash bags you’ll be much less likely to complete the task. And you know what that means! That means Gray Gardens.

2. The list is where you’ll note what you’re planning to do with any cast offs from your collection. This is true of books, clothes, kitchen items, so get used to me saying it now: Before you begin cleaning anything out, have a plan for where unwanted items will go. We’ll talk a bit more downcolumn about options for getting rid of books.

3. I want you to get into the list-making habit and carry that habit with you from big task to big task.

Stage 1: Make your list, grab your tools & put on music*

*Or a movie, or a Housewives marathon. I think I might tackle my shelf on the 14th while binging on the new season of “House of Cards” because oh my God how freaking excited are you for the new season of “House of Cards”?!?!

Since this is pretty self-explanatory, and I’m joining you in the February assignment, I figured I’d illustrate my point by sharing my list with you. It looks like this:

  • Gather Pledge, Windex, vacuum with detail attachment, rags
  • Take photo of current arrangement
  • Remove all books and whatnots from shelves
  • Take photo of dust bunny collection to share with YoCP-ers because they like seeing that even the Clean Person has the odd dust bunny in her home and I’ve no shame in admitting such things
  • Move shelving unit away from wall; dust thoroughly with Pledge (esp. back and legs)
  • Vacuum and wash floor/baseboards with Windex & rags
  • Put everything back; consider better storage solutions for stationery, spooky supplies
  • Leave any cast off books in vestibule for neighbors
  • Take photo of new arrangement to share with YoCP-ers

Now, pulling that list together took about 5 minutes—unlike the January list-making assignment this is a pretty quick hit. You just basically want a written document you can refer back to when you find yourself losing focus or getting frustrated. In this case, a handwritten list is a great choice because you can get that checking-things-off high.

This is also a good time to give you my quick spiel on what to do when you start to lose focus and/or get frustrated. Once you catch yourself in a state of frustration of having lost focus—shifting piles from one spot to another for no reason, picking up a book and thumbing through it, these are the kinds of things that will indicate that you’ve lost focus—stop what you’re doing and take a 15 minute break. Don’t try to give yourself a pep talk or a stern upbraiding, just stop and take a break. Make a cup of coffee or tea. Have a cold soda or beer. Throw yourself in a quick shower. Are you hungry? I find that losing focus is generally a sign that I need a snack, because I am a five-year-old apparently.

Make it a real break, don’t use the 15 minutes to sort the mail (unless sorting the mail is soothing for you, in which case, knock yourself out). The thing is though … this break is only for 15 minutes. Set a timer if you must, but take a deep breath and get back to work after the 15 minutes are up.

Stage 2: Clean the shelves

To do this, you’ll need to take everything off the shelves. Yup! Everything. As you’re removing items, group like things together; so: books in one pile, records/CDs/DVDs in another, knickknacks in another, and so on. It’s perfectly fine to have a ‘wild card’ pile of items that bear no relation to one another; your wild card section can also be the place where you put things that don’t actually belong on the bookshelf but that have somehow found their way to it. Socks, a butter knife, the tub of Aquaphor—those should eventually be returned to their rightful homes, but for now can spend some time in the wild card area.

Have a large box, bin or trash bag on hand for stashing things you already know are going to get junked, but don’t spend more than 10 seconds contemplating whether or not you’re going to keep something. If there’s a question in your mind, just stash whatever it is in the group to which it belongs.

Once everything is off the shelves, pull them away from the wall if possible and wipe them free of dust, dirt, pet hair, human hair—whatever’s accumulated over the years. Work from the top down; this is important because dust from the top shelf will settle on the lower shelves as you clean, so going from the bottom up will create more work for you.

Optional: Paint, stain, line or repair shelves

If you’re planning to do any kind of work on your shelving unit—anything from repairs to painting—this is the time to do it.

Stage 3: Pare down your collection

We have a tendency to hold onto books long after they’re of any real use or value to us. I’ve been guilty of this; to be perfectly honest with you, the only reason I’m cured of my need to hold onto books was the reality of moving into my current apartment—a teeny tiny 6th floor walk-up. Let me tell you: nothing will help you part with books as easily as the prospect of having to carry boxes of them up six flights of stairs and then have nowhere to display them. So if you’re having trouble deciding what books to keep and which to pitch, pretend you’re me and ask yourself, “Would I be willing to carry this book up six flights of stairs?” If the answer is yes, keep it. If the answer is no, put it in your discard pile. Things in particular to be on the lookout for are textbooks (why are you keeping that Organic Chemistry tome? Does it hold fond memories for you? No, no it does not.); books that were given as gifts that you’re keeping out of a sense of obligation or guilt; anything given to you by someone with whom you used to share bodily fluids but with whom you no longer share bodily fluids. Especially get rid of those, they’re casting all manner of bad energy about your home.

Which leads nicely into this part of the discussion—what to do with all those books you’ve decided you can live without?

Your choices are pitch/recycle; donate; sell. I mean, there are other things you can do but those are the main ones. If you’re going to sell your books, you should know where you plan to do that and also have a backup for any books that the buyer isn’t interested in. If you plan to donate books, and this is very important, be 100% sure that the donation outlet wants and can take your books. Call ahead. Check their website. Don’t just show up somewhere with a pile of old textbooks and self-help tomes and assume they’re wanted.

You all will have more suggestions of donation spots, which you should make, but a few ideas from me:

  • Senior centers
  • Smaller libraries
  • Shelters and group homes
  • Organizations like Books for Soldiers, Books 4 Cause or Books to Prisoners
  • Goodwill, Salvation Army, thrift stores, etc.

Sidebar: Where are my “No no no, I will not give or throw away a single book they are all precious gifts!” people? Oh there you are, I see you’ve found one another. (I can tell by the hushed muttering punctuated by the odd, “If that Clean Creature thinks I’m parting with my 7th grade copy of Watership Down she’s got another thing coming!”)

I would not dare suggest that you part with your 7th grade copy of Watership Down.

I have a deal to make with you: you don’t have to get rid of a single book from your collection, but in exchange you can maybe spend a little extra time dusting and generally caring for them? Does that seem fair? I mean, you love them, show them you care. Caress them. Tell them that new shade of lipstick is nice. You know, tender-like.

Stage 4: Put everything back

But wait! Before you do, wipe down the books and whatever else you’re keeping with a clean, dry rag. They will have dust on them! And you spent so much time tending to the bookshelf itself, so don’t go mucking it up by putting dusty books on the clean shelves.

After all that hard work you did, here’s your reward: This is the fun part! It’s time to style your shelves and make them look fantastic.

Now, everyone has a different way of arranging their bookshelves and I’m not here to tell you what’s right or wrong. They’re your shelves! If you want to arrange them by author, or by genre, or by size, or by color that’s all on you to decide. If you want to arrange the books vertically, horizontally, diagonally, or some combination of all three, go for it. But since this is the fun part, let’s have a little fun looking at some beautifully arranged bookshelves as inspiration. These sites (or whatever you find on your own) are also good to go back to when you’re taking your frustration break. They’ll serve as a little nudge and reminder about the end goal of this kind of dirty, tiring job you’re doing.

Tips for Arranging & Organizing Bookshelves | Better Homes and Gardens

Decorating Tips for Shelves and Bookcases | HGTV

Organizing and Arranging Bookshelves | Kara Leigh Interiors

Styling a Bookshelf: 10 Homes That Get It Right + 5 Tips For Your Own | Design*Sponge

And then of course there’s Pinterest, the mother of all bookshelf styling guides.

Extra Credit

If getting your bookshelf spiffed up is a relatively short task, or if you’re just feeling a bit overachieve-y this month, here are a few suggestions of other related tasks you might want to take on in February.

  • Magazine Purge: Pitch old and unwanted magazines and catalogues; store what you’re keeping in magazine holders; unsubscribe from catalogues you no longer want to receive
  • Clean up and beautify the coffee table: Remove everything from the coffee table, give it a good cleaning, restyle
  • Cord control: Untangle, dust and get control of any and all cords that have gone haywire in your home.

Suggested Rewards

Well you knew this was coming: Buy my book! The release date—February 25—is right around the corner, and I would be forever grateful to you for any and all pre-orders and purchases. /embarrassing self-promotion.

If that’s not of interest [SOBS] or you’re feeling extra splurge-y, here are a few other ideas for you. Invest in new magazine holders. If you tidied up the coffee table, treat yourself to a remote control caddy or coffee table book you’ve been wanting. Buy a set of bookends you’ve had your eye on.

Or how about also rewarding yourself with some ooohing and aaahing? I would love to see a photo of your reclaimed bookshelf so that I can tell you how great it looks!

Jolie Kerr is the author of the upcoming book My Boyfriend Barfed In My Handbag … And Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha (Plume, 25 February 2014); more cleaning-obsessed natterings can be found on Twitter, Kinja, and Tumblr.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin