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Fixing Clutter Speaks Volumes

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Newspaper) - 6/13/2009 by Kathy Flanigan
Contest winner turns a new leaf with bookshelf makeover

Renee Barr's extreme extracurricular reading sets her up as the perfect candidate for a bookshelf makeover.

The special-education teacher hasn't found a book club yet that isn't worth her time and energy. Barr is currently pledged to two that meet monthly. She also shares books through a Web site and participates in an online discussion forum about books. She has nearly every book that Oprah has recommended.

In fact, she's written down the books she has read or wants to read and charted them according to book clubs, online and Oprah in a series of journals.

Like the books, the journals are part of the massive jumble of reading material that makes the shelves in her office look like they're screaming for mercy. To say Barr is a voracious reader is an understatement. Her 2006 journal shows that she read 40 books that year. She was shooting for 26.

What Barr had to show for her literary enlightenment was a big fat mess - big enough to win the Journal Sentinel bookshelf makeover contest.

Last month in the Entrée section, we asked readers to send us photos of their disastrous bookshelves. The winner got a bookshelf makeover from an interior designer.

In her plea for professional help, Barr came clean about the chaos:

"It is directly above my work area and, perhaps more importantly, my laptop," she wrote. "My fear now is that one addiction will cause the shelves to collapse, effectively taking the other one with it!"

Interior designer Merri Cvetan, owner of MEC Design Studio in Big Bend, was dispatched to Barr's Fort Atkinson home as a kind of de-cluttering cavalry. Cvetan's first inquiry: "Do you want to keep everything here?"

It was a loaded question. Barr had stuffed, packed and crammed books into every inch of three long shelves attached to the wall above her desk.
Thinning the inventory

Paperback books were double-stacked behind hardcover books and more paperbacks. It was only coincidence that the book "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere" ended up two books away from the book "The Middle of Everywhere."

With Cvetan watching, Barr agreed to take out all reference books and pull off everything else that wasn't a book - which still left a whole lot of books. With more prodding, she took away some of the titles she'd already read and a few that she was willing to share through www.paperbackswap.com - but not her autographed copy of "Three Cups of Tea."

"We can arrange it so it looks pretty, or by author or category," Cvetan said, leaving the decision to Barr.

Pretty won.

Dust rag in hand, Cvetan climbed on a chair and started arranging books. She left the back row of paperbacks in place "because you can't see it from down there, anyway." She arranged books by color. She stacked some vertically and others horizontally to give the shelves dimension and make the pattern interesting to the eye.

Where she could, Cvetan grouped authors and colors. For instance, Nicholas Sparks' novels with dark covers were placed side-by-side vertically on the second shelf. In the end, red and black books were gathered in separate groupings on one side; lighter colored books on the other. The top shelf held the orange books.
A decorative blending

As she arranged reading materials, Cvetan also worked in collectibles that Barr wanted to show off, including two vintage cameras, bookends shaped like little chairs, family photos of her two college-student daughters and a stack of old school film-strip canisters that Cvetan staged just so on the top shelf.

Leaving a partial row of paperbacks on the top shelf, Cvetan pulled some books forward to give a sense of depth to the shelf. She staged snapshots using vertical and horizontal pictures to give depth to the look.

Extra books, including the reference books, were sent to the basement, where Barr stores her collection of Oprah books. Barr and her husband, Charlie, also stack books on each of the nightstands in their bedroom. A second room in the basement holds Barr's textbooks from school, while another bookshelf overflows with more books she has read.

Barr kids that daughter Kate's room and its filled-to-capacity bookshelf is considered the "young adult" branch of the home library. It's probably a good thing that the family's two dogs and two cats don't read.

In all, it took Cvetan a little more than an hour to dust and arrange the shelves.

Barr looked relieved. She was asked how long the organization might last because new books are always coming in.

"It's not like a research library," she said, smiling. "If I'm going to read a book, I'm going to pull it out and either leave it out or put it someplace else."