Is writing about bookshelves a little too silly even for me? Well, sorry, but that’s what I got this week. It’s been a long, baaaaadddd week, with server crashes and badly delayed project deliverables and more than a few shouting matches. At such times, the most trivial things can grab our attention, amuse us, and lighten the load.
I’ve always liked barrister bookcases. The idea of keeping books under glass, like precious delicacies, appeals to me. They’re great for collectibles, too. If you like things like plastic action figures and Lego models (in which case, you’d love my house!) then you know what a chore it is to keep dust out of all the little nooks and crannies on them. Dust, I’m told by my action-figure-expert son, is deadly to plastic collectibles. It can actually soften and damage some plastics. (If you hate dust, you’d hate my house. 144 years’ worth of dead skin cells, old carpet fibers and dog and cat hair… plus some mouse skeletons in the walls. I’ve seen them.)
When Renee and I were first married, we bought something that claimed to be a barrister bookcase at Bradlees. (If you don’t remember Bradlees, it was akin to K-Mart, Wal-Mart of Caldor. They were all over Maryland in the later 1980s, and pretty much only then. Their mascot was Mrs. B., played by actress (?), whose only other credit that I know of is as the landlady in Three Men and a Baby.) I’m told by my friend June that the label is inaccurate, because said case has vertical glass doors, not horizontal ones. It’s also made of pressure board, and its bookshelves must be flipped every six months or so to prevent warping. It houses my ever-growing collection of DC Comics Archives and Marvel Masterworks. It used to also house all my Robert Heinlein hardcovers, but I ran out of space (happily), and I read the Heinleins often enough that they don’t get dusty. Oh and (Heinlein would approve) it’s disfigured on one corner because my beloved red tabby Khan was less specific about bathrooms than most males, and certainly less so than most cats.
Right. Barrister Bookcases it is. So a Barrister Bookcase is? According to Wikipedia…
A barrister requires the use of many law books and may frequently move to new chambers. A specialised form of portable bookcase has thus developed to meet their needs. A barrister’s bookcase consists of several separate shelf units that may be stacked together to form a cabinet. An additional plinth and hood complete the piece. When moving chambers, each shelf is carried separately without needing to remove its contents and becomes a carrying-case full of books… Many of this style, exported worldwide, were made by the Skandia Furniture Co. of Rockford, Illinois around the beginning of the 20th century.
This style of bookcase was either made in a Dickensian period, or harkens back to the style of such times…
So, even though I had the lovely one from Bradlees which may or may not contain enough genetic material to someday produce a clone of my beloved feline friend, I’ve spent years eyeing up these cases in antique stores. I love shopping for home goods at antique stores because you’re less likely to buy the same furniture everyone else has, and you’ve got a better idea that what you’re buying won’t be consider crap in another fifty years. But, even second-hand, barrister bookcases are expensive. I’ve never seen one for less than $600… until this weekend.
So we went to look for chairs. We bought recliners the year Christian was born. Christian turns 15 Wednesday. He looks great and has all his parts intact. The recliners not so much. So we decided to keep Christian and replace the recliners. We’ve bought a fair number of very nice pieces of furniture (new and used) from the Chestertown Antique and Furniture Center, so we headed there. These guys sell new furniture and antiques, and also have a large selection of used books. If you want to get me to come to your furniture store often, have used books.
We did not find chairs.
But I found, sitting in one of the tastefully arranged nooks, a barrister bookcase. Not a new one, but it had been refinished. It was a slightly odd color, not a classic wood stain, but a fairly bright red, tinted stain. It was priced at a little over half what I’m used to seeing these things go for, and it had wavy glass in two of its four sections, so I knew it was pretty old. I pointed it out to Renee, who said she just happened to be looking to replace the pressure board bookcase of unknown lineage in the family room. (Pressure board is a sometimes necessary evil.) She wanted something colorful. I wanted a barrister bookcase. Et voila.
We were a bit nervous about transporting the thing. We were over an hour from home, and driving my Jeep Wrangler with three passengers. But lo and behold, this case easily separated into six pieces. Being barrister bookcase virgins, we didn’t know such things could be. “Oh yeah,” explained our friendly salesman, “the point was that you could buy as many sections as you needed, and expand whenever you wanted to.”
So, wait… you mean these things were standardized? This thing looked to be, oh, 1940s vintage at the latest. It was lined with attractive wall or shelf paper that had to be that old. Was he saying that, 50 years before Ikea came to America, there was modular shelving?
Uh… yeah. Turns out there was. So I wanted to know how old it was. I went online and searched. Within minutes, I’d found a listing on eBay with a photo of my bookcase, sans modern red stain. It’s apparently a Globe-Wernicke “Elastic” Bookcase. It lacks any labels on the insides of the cases. If it had them, they were papered over. It has only a stamp on the inside of the crown reading: “This Is No. 10. R. When Ordering State Finish.” But the hardware and the cut of the wood match the photos I’ve found of the Globe Wernicke cases. I suppose it could be a knockoff.
In fact, some sources claim the term “barrister bookcase” was originally invented to describe the Wernicke Elastic Bookcase. These were patented in 1892 by one Otto Wernicke, a former brakeman and fireman for the CB&Q Railroad, as well as an accountant, who founded a furniture company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa to build his new product. Seven years later, he merged his company with the Globe Files Company of Norwood, Ohio.
At the same time, articles all over the Internet, including the Wikipedia entry cited above, say that glazed barrister bookcases date back hundreds of years and originated in England. I suppose both could be true, if the UK version were all custom-built, while Wernicke introduced the idea of standardized, expandable systems. Skandia Furniture, also mentioned by Wikipedia, was a latecomer in any event. They didn’t patent their Viking stackable bookcases until 1908.
There’s a pretty nice tribute site for the now-extinct Globe Wernicke company. They even sell replacement hardware for the cases. I not that mine is missing its metal door glides, which is apparently a common problem. I’ll probably order some. Assuming I have the manufacturer correct. This site also says it’s a despicable crime to paint one of these cases. I suppose whoever refinished it in red is guilty of at least a misdemeanor, then. Still, it’s keeping the dust off of my Mego action figure… at least about half of them.
So far only one book has made it onto the shelves, though. An 1861 edition of The Pickwick Papers, if you’re curious. Perhaps the author could tell us what sort of cases were in his attorney’s office.