Sunday, January 2, 2022

Objects of life #8 — mid century bookcase.

Yesterday, on the turn of the year, I decided to tidy our back room. It's one of those awkward spaces,  useful and yet not quite what it could be; a thoroughfare from the front to rear gardens that we use for coats and boots and anything that might make the cottage look untidy. When I bought this place it was no more than an earthen floored shed; decades earlier it had been used to keep pigs. 

None of which is particularly relevant, except for the process of relooking and sorting —the putting of our lives in order and hoping they might stay that way; which of course they won't. 

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't have the patience to try.

In the corner of the room was a mid-century bookcase that I bought when I was twenty-one years old for my first ever house. I'd seen it for sale in a newspaper small ad of the type that nobody bothers with these days. And I remember the elderly lady who sold it to me: she was small and solid with deep-dyed hair and bright features that hinted at the beauty in her youth. She was almost seductive and insisted on my having tea and offering me a small table she was selling too. For years it was in our summerhouse until (to my deep regret and in a moment of unthinking) I disposed of it as clutter.

Why do I remember that encounter so vividly?  And why do I recall it so often? I must have forgotten a thousand equivalent meetings, and yet, I could show you where her flat was in Cullercoats, overlooking the sea in the north east of England. I could tell you with confidence that the bookcase cost me fifteen pounds and that I gave her an extra two for the small table. If I took a moment I'm sure I could bring to mind the smell of her perfume. It seems our minds hold onto memories as randomly as we do the objects we own.

And as I get older, the two become almost indivisible.

The bookcase has been with me in all my houses since that day, even if, like the space between our gardens, it's not always been fully utilised or appreciated. For the last year, it's been squeezed lengthways between a wall and a wardrobe that stores our coats; when we pulled it out yesterday, its shelves were crammed with a plethora of 'stuff' that hadn't quite got another home. Someone in a more objective mood would've taken the lot to the tip.

But then, they wouldn't have been looking closely. For despite its utilitarian appearance, the cabinetry is precise and cleverly designed. To help its movement and assembly, the shelving dismantles and fits together with a jigsaw-like accuracy; the panels are subtly coloured, the hinges smooth, the doors satisfyingly snug. It would be easy to mistake the workmanship as coming from a famous maker like Ercol or G-plan, but in fact, it's anonymous. Which I rather like, as it avoids the temptation to put a price on something whose value isn't about money at all.

That said, I'm told that mid-century furniture is enjoying something of a renaissance. It seems my taste of forty years ago is finally becoming trendy. As we dusted it down and cleaned the glass my teenage son said,  I guess this is going in your fancy new study?  And he was right; it fits perfectly too — between the chairs where I like to read and the pebble tables which though an iconic design irritate me a little with their fiddliness.  Oh, I do so wish I had that table I threw away. 

Coming to my study this morning I had no intention of writing about this. But then yesterday I had no idea that the bookcase would find its home and feel so appropriate at last. It's as if the sorting of objects helps to clear our minds too, suggesting possibilities and settling ideas into place — not dissimilar, perhaps, to the way we store books on shelves; an ordering of our memories, of significant moments... the putting of our lives on display.


  1. Furniture is a 'thing' with me. It always has been, from the time that I was in my 20s standing in the middle of a antique bedroom outfit that I'd fallen in love with. I bought it for one thought: This will last for my life, and the bed will be the one that I die on. It has lasted a lifetime, and I love it no less now than I did the day I bought it on that hot summer day.

    In my corner of the world, style has become more important than quality and if you are looking for something to last forever, you really have to seek out furniture that been a part of someone else's memories.

  2. I love that mid century style. I was sad that our set of cupboards had to go as there was nowhere to put them in our little retirement bungalow last April. I too had got my furniture 2nd hand. But the young woman who bought it was delightful, and even sent me a photograph showing how good it looked in her new home. Your bookcase is truly splendid. Happy New Year

  3. It is a sort of rebirth when we bring an old and long-owned piece of furniture back into use, isn't it? We see these old things with new eyes again, able to admire them not only for what they are but also for they history they have in our lives.

  4. That's a lovely piece of mid-century furniture Mark, and the way you acquired it most interesting. Definitely the perfect piece for "your favorite books" including of course your very own!
    This style of furniture is popular - expensive here - with the younger group setting up their first homes. It will last much longer than anything brought home in the SUV in a flat pack from IKEA!
    If you read my current post you can see my own shelf of favorite books, yes yours included, and mementoes. Some day I'll have to add a story as to getting that unbelievably heavy antique secretary upstairs - and why it will probably have to stay there forever, haha!!!

    A very HAPPY NEW YEAR to you and your family Mark. Looking forward to your posts in 2022.
    Mary -

    1. I dropped my end of an incredibly heavy secretary as we were hauling it upstairs. Broke my heart.

  5. When I bought my first property (a small flat in Wandsworth, SW London) someone gave me what I now know was useful advice. They said don't give way to the temptation to buy any old tat, just to fill up the place, because furniture tend to stick around and it's likely you'll still have it in thirty or forty years time. How right they were! And you chose your bookcase well.
    Wishing you a Happy New Year.

  6. YYou painted a sad and unwanted piece of furniture and then, in the photograph, it looks very attractive, useful and just tthe thing. All the way through reading about it I kept thinking that I would have thrown it out by now (downsizing from a large old farmhouse to a two bedroom bungalow when my dear farmer died meant I had to be ruthless. But I did keep one or two things more from a nostalgia point of view than a utilitarian one.

  7. That's a useful piece and has really come into its own for you now. Keith and I regret not keeping the 60s sideboards our parents were so proud of and we had very jaundiced views towards as we liked older things. Keith's mum's sideboard got flatpacked and off to the tip . . . he hated to see that happen, but no-one wanted that style 20 years ago.

    Smiling at the old gal flirting with you. I bet you made her day!

  8. "Oh, I do so wish I had that table I threw away."

    That's always the way, isn't it? In the re-organizing, re-thinking that somehow I always seem to do near the end of December, I cleaned out and re-stocked a little bookcase I bought in 1985 at a garage sale. It held my complete collecton of Terry Pratchett books; now it's the "To be read" pile. And I found myself wishing I hadn't given away so many of my books when I moved here.

  9. You certainly chose well for a twenty-something young man. The best in the new year to you and your family. By the way, your long ago hand painted postcards are still with me.

  10. Hari OM
    Old, yet new again... I had said I wished for nothing from my father's stuff, but when it became apparent that my siblings had no want or desire for the few late 1960's teak cabinets and one set of drawers I put my hand up after all. Such furniture to purchase on the open market now is anything from three hundred quid and up into four figures per item! This stuff isn't Ercol or G-plan either... but rather think it is Schreiber. Your cabinet has the look of Nathan about it. Such items are not merely nostalgic but practical. Your nook looks fab!

    Thank you for your generous comment over at DoWY bloggy. I wish you the very best for 2022 and extend the hope that we will see you once again regularly blogging with such wonderful posts as this! YAM xx

  11. Well I am glad you found such pleasure in furniture bought long ago. Looking round the antique emporium and there was a whole section on the mid century furniture and bric-a-brac. My daughter collects all this and I am not a fan but then my choice has been to get rid of all my furniture and go through life lightly;)

  12. It is lovely to hear the memories that remain with that very charming bookcase.

  13. A well made piece deserves house room! Never mind about the maker

  14. It is indeed strange how human memory works. The things that refuse to be filtered away through the sieve of time may be symbolic pointers to who we really are. We are incapable of saving memories on demand for our minds have their own ways that we cannot consciously control.

  15. Dear Mark,

    I admire your ability to write on a topic on the spur of the moment and not to mention, a gift for story-telling.

    I am glad that you have found a proper home for your beautiful bookcase. The colour of the bookcase works really well with the two sofas. I like the sleekness of its style. It makes me think of Habitat furniture/Terence Conran's style - 1964 era after the country finally came out from the post-war austerity of 1950s.

    I saw an exhibition titled "Terence Conran: The Way We Live Now" at the Design Museum a few years ago and his design does not seem to be outmoded at all (his wicker cone chair is one of the coolest things in the exhibition. I wanted to have one in my house!).

    I think that it combines functionality and aesthetic so beautifully. The contemporary furniture only has got the look part but the quality is doubtful.

    Wishing you good health, happiness and prosperity for the new year. Thank you as always for your generosity of words and generosity of heart. May the blessings keep pouring on you and your lovely family.

    Best wishes, ASD

  16. That is a very fine looking bookcase and definitely worthy of its new home.
    I wish I had £1 for every time I wished I had not given or thrown something away. I'd have enough to buy myself a nice bookcase or two. I wish most of all that I could get most of the stuff back, especially the books. For which I would need a nice bookcase!

  17. Nice furniture like a favourite coat or hat. You could imagine life without them. Some books feel like that. Old friends they seem like.

  18. Beautiful blog. Happy new year 🎉

  19. Our house is furnished with a whacky mismatched collection of furniture much of which collected up when F was a student over 30 years ago. She had the time in those days to attend a local auction house where house clearances and old junk were sold off. Those were days before Gumtree, Ebay, Freecycle or TradeMe and the like. Auctions weren't the fashionable gatherings we might see in TV shows where people unload collectables and dream of get-rich-quick on Grandma's trinkets. In Dunedin NZ at that time 'desirable' furniture was colonial and made of native timbers. Undesirable, and therefore inexpensive, was the solid and dark oak stuff that generations of European immigrants had brought with them. Guess what we've got? oak sideboard from a post office, a cane seat oak carver, a mismatched collection of high backed dining chairs, an oak refectory table big enough for a football team dinner.... (or for a big gamily with lots of kids)
    The thing about well made furiture (even if unfashionable), it can still look good in the right company; and your bookcase certainly does that.

  20. A well-told tale that meanders through memory to focus on your bookcase. We have had much of our wooden furniture for many years and I see no reason to change it out now. My husband enjoys woodworking and made several of our pieces, which makes them even more valuable to me.

  21. Putting our lives on display, of course that's what it is, I had just never thought of it like that.
    You bought your first house at 21? Gosh, that shows us how different things were then.
    I wasn't much older when I did the same, bought a small terrace for £3,700.

    Isn't it sad that we often realise too late that what we just discarded is of importance after all?

  22. In Issaquah, WA (USA) there is a business called Antique Importers. Yearly, the owner flies to the UK, arranges for a shipping container, and then proceeds to circumnavigate the island. He buys mid-century furniture from people. When the container is full, he comes home. There was quite a bit of G-Plan, which we had never heard of. We bought three stacking tables which was all we could get in the back of the pickup truck (4 bicycles took up most of the space). He had a side board in the store that I lusted after with all my heart, but it was impossible to transport. I'm glad your bookcase has survived all of these years.