In the library of her 5,800-square-foot house in Glen Cove, N.Y., Linda Teitelbaum keeps trophies from dog shows, needlepoint pillows of bulldogs and gold-framed photos of family. Though the plaid-papered room has a scattering of books, she often retreats to it not just to read but to remember the dogs she used to breed, to nap, or to get away from the TV. "It's my veg-out room," Ms. Teitelbaum says.
Reading rates are down and Americans say they love casual living. And yet, one of the most popular rooms in big new houses is a library. Rather than being about books, their appeal is often about creating a certain ambiance. "Libraries connote elegance and quality," says New York architect and interior designer Campion Platt, adding that most of his wealthy clients want one, even if they do most of their reading online.
Libraries have become so fashionable that this month, talk-show host Oprah Winfrey featured the one in her Santa Barbara, Calif., home on the cover of her magazine; it contains first editions collected for her by a rare-book dealer.
In the latest annual National Association of Home Builders consumer survey, 63% of home buyers said they wanted a library or considered one essential, a percentage that has been edging up for the past few years. Many mass-market home builders are including libraries in their house plans, sometimes with retro touches like rolling ladders and circular stairs.
Jeani Ziering, an interior designer in Manhasset, N.Y., says the newfound popularity of libraries is part of a general movement toward traditional design and décor. "When the economy turns bad, people turn to the classics," she says. Libraries are especially appealing during anxious times because they project coziness and comfort, she adds.
What can make libraries more soothing than other formal rooms isn't so much books but the framed family photographs, awards and mementos that share the shelves and define a family's interests and identity, says McLean, Va., architect Chris Lessard. "They're memory rooms," he says. Because libraries are public rooms, oftentimes the books are purely decorative and don't say as much about the family who lives there. The books that people really read, like paperback novels and how-to guides, often are kept out of sight elsewhere in the home.
Even in a downturn, U.S. adult hardcover and paperback book sales reached $16.6 billion last year, a slight increase from the year before, according to the Book Industry Study Group, a New York trade group. But crammed schedules and the Web have slashed the amount of time people spend reading books. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, 5% of Americans said they read literature in 2002, the latest survey data available, down from 14% in 1992.
Still, some homeowners are book lovers. Michael Burkitt and his wife, Roberta, own an estimated 9,000 books, all hardbound, which they keep in two formal libraries in their new, 5,800-square-foot home in Reno, Nev., and their 3,800-square-foot vacation house in Newport Coast, Calif. Mr. Burkitt, 65, the recently retired co-owner of a structural-plastics firm, says he's been too busy working most of his life to read even a fraction of them. But he enjoys relaxing among them in what he considers his "sanctuaries" -- one paneled in dark wood, the other in white -- free from distractions like computers. "They're the wombs of my homes," he says.
Tucson, Ariz., interior designer Terri Taylor says she spends a lot of time scouring flea markets and bookstores for books with fancy bindings for her clients' bookshelves. She selects books to match color schemes rather than for their content. She once was ecstatic to find a stash of beautiful, leather-bound books at the bargain price of $20 apiece -- never mind that they were written in German, a language her clients didn't read.
"I bought cases of them," she says.
For home builders who are scaling back the size of houses to make them more affordable and cheaper to construct, libraries are a more functional way to create an upscale look than the "old, crazy massive foyers and 'Gone With the Wind' staircases," that characterized houses a few years ago, says Memphis, Tenn., architect Carson Looney.
In some mass-market builders' plans, libraries are replacing dens, which have become redundant in the age of huge family rooms. A home plan called the Monterey Mediterranean offered by Toll Brothers, of Horsham, Pa., has 5,183 square feet, and includes a family room and a library with double glass doors off the foyer -- but has no den.
Neither does the 4,289-square-foot Blue Harbor Plan 4 house that John Laing Homes of Irvine, Calif., sells for nearly $1.3 million in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. In addition to a wine room and a family room with fireplace, it puts a library on a landing between the first and second floors, which allows the ceiling height to be extended for more bookshelf space.
Of course, selling built-in bookshelves is a way for builders to pump up their bottom lines, especially if buyers choose custom-made shelving in exotic woods and frills such as secret doors hidden in paneling. About half the clients of London Bay, a Naples, Fla., builder whose prices start at just under $1 million, order such upgrades, at a cost ranging from $30,000 to $300,000. Lately, says Mark Wilson, the builder's chief executive officer and president, there's even been demand for "his and hers" libraries for spouses who like to keep their books, collections and alone-time separate.
Some builders are also creating mini-libraries scattered throughout the house. Popular spots are under the stairs, in lofts, in alcoves near master bedrooms and along entry hallways. Gary Stefanoni, senior executive vice president of Orleans Homebuilders in Bensalem, Pa., says that for the past few years, he's seen demand for bookcases in children's playrooms, since kids often have more books, trophies and collections than their parents do. "They want to display them in their own space," he says.
Dan Poag, a shopping-center developer, is putting a dedicated library and built-in bookcases in nearly every room of the 10,000-square-foot house he's building in Memphis. He doesn't know how many books he owns -- he estimates several thousand -- but has kept nearly everything he's purchased since college, as well as his three grown sons' college textbooks, a collection of science fiction, and children's books that his five grandchildren read when they visit. Since nearly every wall of his current house is filled with books, his decorator urged him to re-cover them so their multicolored spines wouldn't clash with the décor. He refused. "The books are my priority," he says.
Similarly, author Jay McInerney and his wife, Anne Hearst, happily mix dog-eared paperbacks with first editions of Fitzgerald and Joyce in the overstuffed bookcases of both their Manhattan apartment and their Hamptons house. Mr. McInerney thinks the visual jumble of thousands of mismatched books is appealing. "If you're not reading what's on your bookshelves, you should find something else to decorate with," he says.