Four years ago, I bought my single shotgun house in New Orleans, not just because I wanted to live in this beloved city but also for the house’s aesthetics: excellent light, high ceilings, hardwood floors. Also, there was a four-and-a-half-foot wide space lodged between a more than 100-year-old brick fireplace and a wall of the living room that sang to me. It was in this spot where I instantly visualized that which did not yet exist: a floor-to-ceiling custom bookshelf.
As an author and lover of books, bookshelves have always acted as kinds of altars for me, even as they serve a functional purpose. Still, I’d never had a fancy bookshelf before. I’d had Ikea particle board bookshelves and hand-me-down-from-friends bookshelves and dumpster-dive bookshelves and back-of-the-thrift store bookshelves. Never had I owned something stylish and new and tailored for me and my needs. A handmade bookshelf to fit a nearly 13-foot ceiling? Frankly, it was a sex dream.
There was also the idea of it being created out of thin air. A space existed, and it needed to be filled. This appealed to me as a novelist, a person who is constantly conjuring up universes where they previously hadn’t existed, even as I felt a nervous energy around the decision. It can feel risky to imagine things, perhaps even riskier to ask someone else to imagine for you, particularly in this, the first house I had ever bought, which I had saved for for years. I needed someone I could trust.
I posted a call on social media for someone to build a bookshelf, and a friend recommended a person I already knew, swore by his work. The builder was a congenial man a few years younger than me who lived across the levee in the Lower Ninth Ward. I had met him two years before at a bar in the neighborhood, through the same friend who recommended him. We shook hands at the time and had a nice chat. An ex-girlfriend of his we both knew (this town is small) came up in conversation, and he spoke sweetly and respectfully of her. “She’s one in a million,” he said. He’s an all right guy, I thought. Not everyone is so nice about their exes.
The builder estimated it would take two months to build the bookshelf. He cut me a deal: $1,600 in total, an incredible gift on his part for which I was grateful, though not a small sum for me, especially as I had just bought the house. I knew, though, that the bookshelf would be special.
Time crept by long past the delivery date. He had a million projects, ones that paid more than mine did, I told myself. Sure, that empty space blinked at me, but I had other things to do in the house anyway. I kept busy even as my books sat in boxes, sadly unloved children. Occasionally he texted that he hadn’t forgotten about me, always apologetic. I kept it cool. I am an artist and so is he, I thought. Respect his process. (Even though, of course, I wanted the bookshelf now.)
All at once, it started happening. He told me he’d bought the materials. He seemed excited about it, which excited me, too. Sometimes I would wake up in the morning to texts from him where he’d shown me different pieces of wood he was using. He was treating them with linseed oil and turpentine. He was making me something good, and with care, I knew it.
He delivered it days before I had to leave town on business. It was a comedy of errors getting it in the house; the bookshelf was massive and unwieldy — remember, it’s nearly 13 feet tall. The builder and a friend had to get it up the front stairs, through the front door, and under a chandelier, like some moving man video game, all spatial challenges and lower back strength.
We were all holding our breath, especially when they finally flipped the bookshelf up to the ceiling and into its home. Briefly it tipped back toward us, nearly crashing to the ground, and there were a few gasps. I had a flinty, wired tone to my voice. I hate that tone, but when it shows up, it’s hard sometimes to make it go away immediately. It was a fraught day.
Then, suddenly, I had a beautiful bookshelf in my home. Seven shelves the color of warm caramel sit atop a set of cabinets, each shelf made of cypress except for the base, which is a slab of virgin poplar. The poplar contains hundreds of growth rings, the grooves of which feel pleasing to the touch. Visible from the front door, the bookshelf provides a soothing but powerful presence to my home. When you enter, you know this is a home of books.
It was time to populate the altar. I wanted it to represent what I had read and was important to me, both recently and in the past. Books that were on my mind now, and books that would always be on my mind. It needed a poetry section, a frequent-use favorites section, a graphic novel section, a books-I-have-blurbed section.
I also wanted to track what I was reading every year, and there was enough space to do that, too. I thought: what If, instead packing every shelf with books, I don’t fill them all right away? What if I leave room to grow? What if the bookshelf evolves over time so it’s not “finished” right away?
I started with just two shelves full. Each shelf holds more than 50 books. (In fact, I read more than that each year, but I give books away, especially galleys, so it is not a wholly accurate tracking system.) I’m starting year four with it now, and I have two shelves left to fill.
Last summer, it occurred to me that I had never told the builder how I felt about the bookshelf. I had always felt guilty about that day he delivered it. I sent him a message: I told him that I always received compliments on the bookshelf, more than anything else in the house, that I used it all the time, and it remained my favorite object in the home.
He never replied, but a few months later, I ran into him at a cafe. He told me that he had appreciated the message. He had been busy with a complicated renovation of his house. A family member who lived out of town was sick, too, and he had been traveling back and forth from city to city. His life was chaotic. I was glad I had emailed him. I never regret sending an admiring message to someone about their work.
With the new year I had been thinking it was time to just fill the shelves already, finish the room and move on to something else. I contacted the builder again to see if he would have time to talk about the bookshelf. I said I’d bring pizza. I had gotten good news that day, so I offered to bring a bottle of bubbly too.
The builder lives on a stretch of land along the Mississippi, a house, a yard, a workshop, twinkling string lights. When I arrived, he mentioned a coyote had shown up the other morning out back. Against the night sky, I could see people walking their dogs along the levee, and beyond that, the river, and faint lights from the city.
It was a warm night — I would say unseasonably warm, but what does that even mean in this modern era? — and we decided to eat outside. I brushed leaves off the chairs, while he found some jelly jars for the champagne.
We talked about how long it had taken to build the bookshelf, how taxing the installation was. “At some point when you lift the piece, it’s taller than its actual height,” he said. “I had accounted for everything, but still there was a moment where I was worried it wasn’t going to clear the ceiling.”
“But then it fit perfectly,” I said. “It’s exactly right in the space.”
We heard some music in the distance, some jazz. “That’s the Natchez going by,” he said offhandedly of the steamboat.
He discussed the wood, for a while; he mentioned the virgin poplar base. “It’s green when you saw it off, and then it turns brown when it’s exposed to air.” That piece of wood was from his grandfather’s farm in South Georgia. “Sometimes you look around your shop and there’s a piece of wood that’s the perfect length — that was it for this shelf.”
That piece of wood was a thing I had just covered with books, I thought, but of course, it had a life and a story of its own, too.
He told me he had made a lot of bookshelves in his life, and that his mother was an English teacher, and he loved books. He said his grandfather had been a builder, and his great-grandfather too. “My best and favorite tools are theirs,” he said. My bookshelf reminded him of something they would have made: a simple utilitarian object.
Afterward, he built a fire in the pit and shared one of the best and scariest ghost stories I have ever heard. But that is a tale for another time, and not even mine to tell.
Back at home that night, I looked at the shelf one more time. I decided to give it two more years to fill it entirely. Because once they’re full, the values of the shelves will change. The process will be complete. The shelves were too alive with possibility still. I ran my thumb along the texture of the virgin poplar. All those years of growth. And yet, somehow, there is always more to come.
Jami Attenberg is the author of seven books of fiction, including her most recent novel, All This Could Be Yours.