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The Sapien Vertical Bookshelf

I have a lot of books (check out my on-line list of them) and despite an office lined with bookshelves, a loft lined with bookshelves and free-standing bookshelf units in most rooms, I am always close to having more books than shelf space. Plus, new books arrive and get put on a "to be read immediately" stack, and that stack had grown to 6 piles on all the filing cabinets.

So I was intrigued when I got a catalog from DWR (Design Within Reach) (website: www.dwr.com ) which included a vertical freestanding bookshelf -- the Sapien bookshelf. There are two heights -- 5 feet for the short one and 80 inches (6 feet, 8 inches) for the tall. DWR has a design studio here in Austin (Texas), so I went down and looked at their floor model. Clearly I needed the tall.

I ordered it thru the sales representative at the studio, and it was mailed from some warehouse, arriving about two weeks later, as two cardboard boxes. One held the base, and the other the metal "backbone" and shelf units. There are 14 shelves in the tall unit. The books lay flat on the shelf.

Assembling the unit

The backbone is bolted onto the base, and the shelves then are attached to the backbone. Each shelf has three tabs on the back -- two go up, and a bigger one going down.

The two up tabs slip into two slots on the backbone.

And then the books go on top of the shelf.

As I was loading my books onto the shelves, I noticed that two of them slanted down towards the floor, and the books looked like they would slip off. Using a level, I was able to see the variation in the shelves. Look at the bubble in the middle of the level in these pictures. A good shelf would be angled slightly up.

An okay shelf would be pretty level.

But there were two bad shelves (out of 14) that angled down.

Also notice how on this particular bad shelf, the bottom tab actually pulled away from the backbone.

Customer Service (good customer service)

I e-mailed customer service (and cc'ed my local sales rep), to report the problem (this was late at night after I had put the thing together and loaded it up with my books). Customer service e-mailed back the next day that they were sending out two replacement shelves with 2-day delivery. The local sales rep both e-mailed and phoned and said I could come down to the design studio and swap out my bad shelves for two on the floor model. That sounded good to me, but I couldn't get down until Saturday, and if the 2-day delivery was accurate, I would get the new shelves on Friday.

The replacement shelves were on the front step when I got home from work on Friday. I swapped out the slanting down ones for the two new ones and the unit is great. Excellent service and a good result.

You basically have 14 shelves (15 if you count the base) spaced 5.25 inches apart. So you can create 15 little piles of books, up to 5.25 inches tall, and get to any book in the whole 80 inch stack. You may have to move a couple of books off to get at the bottom book in a pile, but since each pile is at most 5.25 inches high, that's not a problem.

A Design Flaw!

But, this is from "Design Within Reach" and the bookcase is sold as being a great design. In my case I had two bad shelves to swap out. It turns out you cannot just take a shelf out. The shelves are listed as being 6 inches deep and 8.25 inches wide. To add or remove a shelf, you have to pivot it vertical, so that the two up tabs can go in or come out of the slots. But the distance from one shelf to the next is only 5.25 inches and the shelf is 6 inches.

You cannot remove a shelf, without removing the shelf above it. And that shelf cannot be removed without taking out the shelf above it, and so on. The result? To swap out a shelf near the bottom, I had to unload all the books, take off all the shelves, from the top, one by one, until I could remove the bad shelf. All this can be done, but it takes a lot more time and motion than just tilting one shelf up and removing it.

Still, all in all, it looks good and holds a lot of books. The pictures from the company show a pyramid of books, big at the bottom and smaller at the top. I tried for the same effect, but with real, random, books, the effect is not the same.

A Better Idea -- A double-wide vertical bookcase

And if we are going to talk great design, consider this: Why not put shelves on both sides of the backbone? A double wide version? You would want a wider base, but you would hold twice as many books in just about the same space! Just take the same backbone (maybe a slightly thicker metal if you need more strength), and put slots down both sides, and ship it with 28 shelves instead of 14.


Once I had a good set of shelves on my bookcase, I experimented with the two bad shelves that I had. Using a pair of pliers with a very long handle (to get lots of leverage), and a very deep set of jaws (to get as much of the tabs as I could), I was able to successfully bend the tabs, both the up tabs and down tab, to a correct angle. In a perfect world they would be 90 degrees from the shelf, but you can also overdo it just a couple of degrees to get a tight fit. I used a set of channel lock pliers with a 9 inch handle and a 2 inch deep throat. A flat surfaced monkey wrench might work well too.

(You want the angle between the down tab and the shelf to be a bit more than 90 degrees -- maybe 95 degrees. That way the tab pushes the shelf up. In the same way, you want the angle between the up tabs and the shelf to be a little less than 90 degrees (maybe 85) so that the up and down tabs are exactly in line.)

Austin, Texas
16 Feb 2007
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