You Have No Idea Just How Much Effort Goes Into a Restaurant Library

Hint: It can take more than a year.

the AlbertCourtesy Michael KleinbergIf you’ve ever walked into a restaurant filled with books, there’s a good chance the stacks made you giddy. There’s just something about the bindings that’s full of possibilities. But you probably had no idea just how long it took to get those books together.

Sure, restaurants could fill their shelves quickly by calling in books “by the foot.” For instance, one website devoted to that business—fittingly called booksbythefoot.com—lets buyers pick from different categories, from color schemes (like only black bindings) to subject. But some restaurants prefer not to buy blindly. After all, those 200 feet of books could be encyclopedias or paperback best-sellers (like these 20 books everyone should have read by now), but buyers won’t know until they arrive.

Enter Thatcher Wine, who started the company Juniper Books to curate the perfect libraries for homeowners and businesses, including the NoMad Hotel library and the Wolfgang Puck restaurant CUT. After all, while you might think “a book is a book” when it comes to décor, the wrong choices could ruin the cozy library feel. “If you’re at a restaurant and sitting at a table in front of books, you don’t want to look up and see a biography of Hitler or bizarre murder mysteries with ‘death’ in the title,” Wine says. “This collection should make sense for the space.”

When Wine starts a project with a new client, he doesn’t just jump to start filling an Amazon cart; he has to follow a number of guidelines. What kind of colors would work in the space? Should the bindings look modern or classic? Do the books need to be a certain subject matter? How big are the shelves? Once he knows what he’s working with, Wine will contact book publishers, plus local dealers to find titles that will work with the space. Sometimes he’ll even get books custom-bound, like to create brand-new covers that looked like antique leather for CUT.

Of course, some restaurants will take on the task of building a library on their own. When Scott Greenberg, CEO and president of SMASHotels hospitality company, decided to feature books in Chicago restaurant the Albert at Hotel EMC2, he had no idea what an undertaking it would be. He thought he’d need about 3,500 books, but the final count was 12,000—and each was handpicked by his assistant, Justyna Chrupek. The entire project took a year and a half.

Going along with the theme of Hotel EMC2, Greenberg wanted books in the Albert to be a mix of art and science to represent learning and curiosity. But he also wanted to stick only with vintage books. Most of the titles are at least 50 years old, and some date back 100 or 120 years. (Find out the reason old books smell so good.)

To find the best titles, Chrupek hunted through some of the usual places, like used bookstores, but she also saved some books from being destroyed. For space reasons, libraries need to get rid of some old books as new titles come in. Those books are often recycled, but some organizations collect the volumes and sell them, with proceeds going to literacy programs. (We wonder if any of them have these bizarre things librarians found in returned books.) The Albert saved some of the books with the most beautiful bindings to display on its shelves. (Clearing out your own collection? Check out these 9 thoughtful ways to donate used books.)

Any collection isn’t just about the books themselves, though; the shelves they’ll be sitting in are another major factor. “A lot of these projects are very technical because you have to accommodate everything everyone wants, down to the sixteenth of an inch,” says Wine. Chrupek spent months figuring out how to arrange the books, and she even found pocket-sized prayer books to fit on a particularly tiny shelves. (Use these interior designers’ tips for decorating bookshelves in your own home.)

Greenberg wanted the Albert’s random-feeling arrangement to mimic a stream of consciousness. “Imagine how our minds work and how we rearrange and change and put ideas together in random ways,” he says. “That’s where the genius lies.”

He had a bit of fun mirroring how people think, sprinkling 30 copies of a book on sex in with the other titles. “People will be looking at books on physics and electromagnetics and then this book about sex,” Greenberg says. “That all gets mixed into our thought process.”

Taking the time to carefully curate titles certainly pays off for restaurant patrons. Even if a space is brand-new, books can make the space feel well worn and homey, says Wine. “Even if you’re not reading them, you have this sense there’s this history and hard work and hundreds of years of collective contribution that went into the look and décor,” he says “It can be very grounding.”

Looking to build your own library? Start with these 18 classics you can read in one day.

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Marissa Laliberte
Marissa Laliberte-Simonian is a London-based associate editor with the global promotions team at WebMD’s Medscape.com and was previously a staff writer for Reader's Digest. Her work has also appeared in Business Insider, Parents magazine, CreakyJoints, and the Baltimore Sun. You can find her on Instagram @marissasimonian.