The house I grew up in was filled with books. I don’t mean that metaphorically, as in my parents read me a lot of books as a child. I mean it quite literally: Every available room in our suburban Maryland home was claimed by my father, a voracious reader, for his always-expanding collection of tomes.
At first it was just a couple of shelves in the family room, which soon overflowed with books about the John F. Kennedy assassination and classic film actors and car racing, along with battered copies of Encyclopedia Britannica’s Book of the Year, going back to 1950, the year he was born.
But Dad couldn’t resist buying new (or new to him) books, and over time, the collection metastasized—first to one of the spare rooms, and then into my childhood bedroom after I moved to New York City for college. When my sister moved out the last of her belongings after buying a house, her old room was also annexed.
I don’t know how many he ended up accumulating, but Dad’s collection was impressively varied: There were biographies of presidents, at least two copies of Sex and the Single Girl, photo books about old sports cars, and pulpy paperbacks, as well as guides to architecture and New York City that I claimed future ownership of. My dad and I shared a love for buildings and my adopted home, and I knew that someday, that part of his collection would end up on my own bookshelves.
I just didn’t expect it to happen so soon.
In the very first week of 2018, my father suddenly passed away, to our family’s collective shock. The next few weeks were a blur of making funeral arrangements, consoling family and friends, and the hardest task: learning to live with the new reality that my father was gone. I stayed with my mother for two weeks, sleeping in my childhood bedroom; every night before going to bed, I would look through the books on Dad’s shelves and cry.
Mom, who is a far more pragmatic person than I am, quickly decided that she didn’t want too many of Dad’s things in the house that was now solely hers. She’d already found someone to take the collection of vintage model cars that he’d built up over the years (he really liked collecting things), and the 1960s Triumph sports car he’d purchased after he retired in 2015. But she hadn’t touched his books. “I want you and your sister to decide who gets what,” she told me.
We spent two emotional nights sorting through everything, and I ended up with five boxes stuffed with reminders of my dad’s quirks and interests: a worn copy of John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage (one of at least four that he owned), vintage monographs about modern architecture, an old edition of the AIA Guide to New York City, and more.
My husband and I were planning to move later that year, so I knew that I would need to find a spot in our new place for the books I inherited. And thus began a monthslong search for the perfect bookshelf to hold my dad’s things.
I scoured all of the usual stores (Ikea, Wayfair, Target, CB2) as well as places that were obscenely outside of my budget. I lusted after a particular West Elm shelf that Dad would have loved, but whose cost I couldn’t justify. I very briefly told myself that buying an authentic Eames hang-it-all—Dad loved the Eames’ work—was actually a better way to honor his legacy, but quickly came to my senses. I made my husband look at dozens of pieces of furniture, pestering him about whether a shelf or a credenza made more sense, or whether maple or cherry was the better shade. (His standard refrain: “Buy whatever you want, but wait until we move!”)
We hadn’t even found a new apartment, but I had almost pulled the trigger on pricey bookshelves too many times to count. This would have been a disaster, of course: As anyone who’s lived in a New York apartment knows, you can’t buy furniture until you know the exact, likely to be infinitesimal amount of space you’ll have for it. Buying first is a rookie mistake—but in my grief-clouded brain, I didn’t really care.
My quest for the perfect bookshelf wasn’t really about the bookshelf. It was about finding a way to cling, however feebly, to my father, and to keep him at the forefront of my mind. I did a lot of that in the months immediately following his death: I wore his old T-shirts to bed and listened constantly to a 300-song playlist I’d made of all of his favorite artists—Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys (he was definitely a baby boomer).
When he was alive, Dad and I spoke almost every day; he was always overprotective, and when I moved away for college his calls just to check in became a part of my nightly routine. Those calls (and, eventually, emails) continued long after I graduated. We were incredibly close, and without him, I felt unmoored.
So I obsessed over this task, believing that if I found just the right piece of furniture—something that Dad himself might have picked out—it might lessen my grief and keep him with me. I didn’t have my dad anymore, but I had his stuff, and that was something.
In the end, I didn’t go with a piece in the midcentury style that my father loved. Instead, I found a leaning bookshelf from Urban Outfitters that has more of a minimalist, vaguely Scandinavian vibe (much more my taste), and that fit into the living room of our new apartment. Once it arrived, I decided that I didn’t want to use it just for Dad’s books. There are plenty of those on the shelves, of course, but there are also family photos, one of my dad’s model cars, and an old cigar box in which he stored mementos of his own father after he passed. Now, I keep prayer cards from both of their funerals in there.
There’s part of my dad, too; he was cremated, and we split his ashes among our immediate family members. It might seem weird to keep the urn (made from walnut, and quite modern in style—Dad would have approved) in a prominent spot on the shelf, but I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather have it. I get to keep a piece of him close by, and Dad still gets to be among his books.
Amy Plitt is the editor of Curbed New York.