The Brown Billies

So I’ve got these bookcases.

They’re just Ikea ones. Billy bookcases. One of them is a big, full-sized bookcase and then there are two miniature versions of the same.

(No, this diary entry is not about the frustrations of building furniture from flat pack. I don’t find that particularly challenging. Do you? What are you, st00pid? Just follow the instructions, it’s a delight).

What makes my bookcases unique is their colour. Brown. You can’t get brown billies anymore. Ikea discontinued them in the UK because we can’t be trusted to be a part of a coherent global supply line.

But I want to replace the two smaller ones with two full-sized ones. Together, these three mighty obelisks would perfectly fit the space I’ve reserved for them and would give the illusion of a full-blown book wall. (Finally my friends will respect me!)

Most importantly, my hot new library setup will expand my book storage capacity by a third. This increase in shelf inches — combined with how we bought our first flat and hopefully won’t have to move so often now — allows me to end the book-buying embargo I’ve imposed on myself for about twelve years. It’s big news, guys.

Lord, I just remembered someone telling me that librarians aren’t so much interested in books as they are in shelves. Maybe that wag was right. I might not work as a librarian any more but I’m probably still a one ethnically.

Since you can’t get these bookcases in the UK anymore, I figured I had two options. I could find someone sufficiently devoted to drive to Belgium with me and transport the desired bookcases from the Gent branch of Ikea (a bit much, probably) or I could buy the hopeless white-coloured version from our local Ikea and then prime and paint them (tricky, messy, smelly). A third option, I suppose, would be to replace all of my existing brown shelves with white ones, which would be wasteful and also suck.

But then someone suggested I set up a Gumtree alert for “ikea brown billy” to see if they’d turn up naturally. I did this. And then I waited. I waited and waited and waited.

Daily, for months, my phone would ping with news but it was always a false alarm. We were talking light-brown billies or brown billies in the wrong shape or size, or brown billies that had suffered so much abuse they’d never take the weight of any actual books.

Finally, without fanfare (if you don’t count the literal fanfare sound I set my phone to make for each alert but had learned to distrust most scornfully) the billies I so desperately wanted popped up on Gumtree yesterday. Four of them. Four beautiful brown billies. For free. I may have drooled. Slowly, slowly, catchy monkey.

By the time the alert had hit my phone, they’d been online for 22 hours. Not long surely? I got in touch.

“I’m sorry,” said the seller, “but I’ve already promised them to someone else. She responded this morning.”

My heart sank.

Well, I did what had to be done. I begged and begged and begged and then I offered a bribe. A hundred pounds for just two of her four bookcases. A trip to Belgium would have been twice this amount so I’d still be up on the deal.

A night passed with no response to my undignified scrounging. I barely slept. I wanted those bookcases. Needed them. There was no other way to adequately house enough books for my next decade on Earth. Maybe I’d find the seller’s address and break in, taking my brown billies under cover of darkness. It couldn’t be called theft if she was publicly trying to give them away could it?

Next morning, the message came in. The seller had checked with the original responder and they’d agreed between them that I could have the two bookcases. “I don’t want money,” she said, “I said they were free and I stand by that.”

Just because I’m a living monster doesn’t mean there aren’t still decent people in this world.

“THANK YOU,” I said.

“You just seemed so pathetically desperate,” she said.

I wondered if she’d ever met anyone with such a zany, almost deranged, need for bookcases before. In the twenty-first century when we’re all supposed to be preparing to ditch physicality and move to the Metaverse.

The seller is moving house on June 15th and I’m to collect them from her vacant property the next day. This means a fortnight of looking forward to getting my mitts on them.

I’ll have to enlist somebody with a van to transport them. And I suppose shouldn’t count my bookshelf chickens before they’re bookshelf hatched. Any number of things could go wrong before those shelves are installed in their rightful place. But, somehow, I have no anxiety about getting them here. I feel an odd sense of serenity in having finally found the brown billies and now I can look forward to their near-magical arrival.

How will I occupy the time until then? Well, I’ll do what I always do, I suppose. I’ll read books. And I’ll write books. And I’ll think about the bookshelves and how nice they will look once they’re in place. Maybe I’ll allow myself to buy some of the books that have cluttered up my wishlist for so long, safe now in the knowledge that they’ll have a proper home here and won’t push another book into the charity/eBay pile.

It was only then that I realised quite how bookish I am. Practically everything in my life has revolved around books. I read them, I write them, I stack them up nicely. I buy them, sell them, find the best place for them when I have to give them away. I worked in libraries for years. Even as a teenager, before you’d think the mania would have set in, my Saturday job was in a W. H. Smiths.

Books, books, books. They’re all I know.

This shouldn’t be a discovery, but it is. I already knew that I read a lot and my tendency to resist e-books shows I’m a paper freak as well as just a reader, but I had’t understood quite what a central place books occupy in my life. Mine is a life of books and soon I’ll have the book-lined wall to prove it.

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