Now and then we need to create a shelf (or a bookcase) full of books, and the question becomes, how to best do this?
The problem lies in that real books look real, but are heavy and take up lots and lots of space in a storage room. Fake books, on the other hand, can be lightweight and take up little space, but often look fake. Also, unfortunately, fake books often look so fake that they call attention to themselves, which is something we don’t want. But there are ways to deal with this, and here are a few examples.
Spines on plywood
A lot of theatres have boxes and boxes of old books taking up space: books which are neither useful anymore nor valuable, but are kept for use as set dressing. These are prime candidates for a two-tiered recycling program. First, you carefully cut off the spines (the printed part you see when the book is upright on a shelf) and glue several of them securely, side by side, to a wide piece of ply, creating the impression of several books lined up in a row. Then you can send the books themselves to a recycling center.
I like two things about this approach. One, it’s modular. You can make up sections, say, ten or twelve inches wide, and line them up on the shelf to fill up the amount of space you need. Two, you can sort out the books by time period, i.e., very old books together and newer ones together. This way you can create a very old library, a newer one, or anything in between. The illustration shows six spines mounted on a piece of ply ten inches across by ten inches high.
A large number of these panels can be stored safely in a relatively small area and help you reclaim some storage space. To keep these from getting crushed or otherwise damaged, I would store them upright in banker’s boxes or plastic bins.
Before you go this way, and especially before you set a crew on doing it, you’ll want to go through all your books to catch any you don’t want to process.
Cut books on plywood
I saw this one in a book or magazine many years ago. It’s similar to the above, but, instead of cutting off just the spines, you put each book on a band saw and cut off about an inch of the spine edge, including the covers and pages. Then you glue those to a piece of ply. Same effect, a little more work, and the tops are a little more durable because there’s more material there. Here again you can send what’s left of the books to a recycling center.
Photos of books on a shelf
I used this one a few years ago for a production of Marc Camoletti’s Don’t Dress for Dinner. The set had a fake French secretary with glass doors, and I wanted to show books inside it. So I took photos of our book shelves at home, had them enlarged to full size at Costco, cut them as needed, and applied the prints to a panel just behind the glass. From a couple of feet away, they looked like the real thing.
The secretary actually opened up to reveal a bar (the characters spent a lot of time drinking during the show), but that’s a different story.
This one is very time-consuming if they are to look right, and too often they don’t. You simply paint the book spines onto a sheet of ply or something similar and place it on the book shelf. But, unless you’re doing a whole row of the same type of book (say, encyclopedias or law books, which tend to have simple spines), you actually have to paint every book spine down to the last detail.
Rigid plastic foam books
I’ve seen this one used a few times, and I’ve never liked it. Besides the fact that the rigid foam (sometimes referred to as Styrofoam) is fragile, the surface texture and finish tends to make it hard to paint. The material is also flammable, so you need to protect it.
Fake books are available at decorating shops and similar places, and a wide variety is available online. Just do a search for “fake books” and you’ll see lots of examples. Although some of these are expensive, they can give you lots of ideas for how to create your own fake library.