A pro shares her secrets for how to declutter bookshelves, open cabinets, floating shelves, and more.

By Lauren Phillips
Updated October 24, 2018
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Decluttering bookshelves - memory box shelfie
Credit: Nick Pope

Figuring out how to declutter can be a lifelong struggle, but a worthy one—it’s astounding how things can pile up, especially on book shelves, open cabinets, and floating shelves, where even a few extraneous items can add some major visual clutter.

A cluttered shelf can be an eyesore, but a curated, coordinated one can be its own work of art. There’s a reason #shelfie has been used almost 1.3 million times on Instagram—a well-organized bookshelf, cosmetic cabinet, or display case is gorgeous and attainable, and it doesn’t cost a fortune to create.

Of course, it all starts with decluttering, which is easier said than done. Good thing there are plenty of helpful resources, like Martha Roberts’s Shelfie: Clutter-clearing ideas for stylish shelf art ($11; amazon.com). In the new book, Roberts—an award-winning journalist, self-proclaimed Shelfie Stylist, and the mind behind The Colour File—outlines her secrets to clearing out shelves in order to make room for the items that matter to you most.

“Creating shelfies is a great opportunity to think about what we really need to keep and what we are happy to bid farewell to,” Roberts writes in the book’s “Clear” chapter. Her expert tips can help you finally tackle the clutter monster on your shelves, making room for a cleaner, prettier shelfie in the process.

Decluttering bookshelves - memory box shelfie
Credit: Nick Pope

1. Clear those off-the-radar spaces

Roberts recommends starting with off-the-radar spaces—kitchen cupboards, desk drawers, junk drawers, and the like—before moving on to shelves that are more on display. “Clearing spaces could also reunite you with shelfieable objects that might have otherwise stayed hidden,” she notes.

2. Keep objects because you love them

“I find I have a physical, visceral reaction to objects I love,” Roberts says. “It’s not related to cost: they’re simply the ones that grab my heart and make me gasp.” When decluttering shelves, keep only the items that make you feel something; holding on to items simply because they cost a lot or you’ve had them for a long time is a waste of your space.

Channel the Marie Kondo method, or follow Roberts’s lead and wait for that physical reaction to items you love: Your soon-to-be clutter-free bookshelves will thank you.

3. Select “hero” objects

Roberts says to focus on the best items in your collection—the heroes—and tossing the rest, especially if you’re only keeping them out of nostalgia.

“You might not have room for a relative’s entire silver-plate coffee set (and it might not fit with your love of Scandi minimalism), but you can accommodate the sugar bowl to keep memories alive,” she writes. “Hero objects have the advantage of being representative of people, times and places without weighing you down.”

4. Give other things a fitting send-off

Sorting the toss items from the keep items is a huge accomplishment, but you’re not done yet. Now you have to actually get rid of everything that won’t fit on your organized shelves—simple in theory, but pretty challenging in practice, especially if you start to feel guilty about donating or throwing away items you once cared about. To fight the urge to reconsider some of your toss vs. keep decisions, Roberts recommends taking a photo of the item, especially if it was a gift from a loved one.

“Post the pic on social media as part of the send-off,” Roberts says. “Remember—ditching the item doesn’t mean ditching the memory.”

RELATED: This Is What Happened When I Finally Got Rid of Hundreds of Books

5. Keep a space-limited memory box

Some items may not be display-worthy, or you may want to keep them private. Roberts suggests using a vintage suitcase, a plastic container, or whatever suits your space and style as a memory box and tucking them inside: You can keep important items and mementos close at hand and part of your space, especially if you pick a pretty memory box, but they’re still secret to you.

6. See your shelfie space as a "cwtch"

“When I was a child, my Welsh mother used to talk about cwtch (rhymes with ‘butch’),” Roberts says. “Traditionally meaning a cupboard or cubbyhole, it has developed to mean so much more. Loaded with affection and kindness, ‘to cwtch up’ means to huddle, to hug and, in doing so, to rebalance.”

A well-curated shelf should make you feel surrounded by your very favorite possessions: Roberts says they should be part of an opportunity to cwtch, so you can feel comforted (not stressed) when you look at them.

RELATED: 3 Bookshelf Organization Tips for Designing the Ultimate Shelfie

How to declutter bookshelves - Shelfie cover
Credit: Nick Pope

Decluttering bookshelves - Shelfie cover

Ready to declutter your shelves? Keep Roberts’s tricks in mind, and you may find the process easier than you expect. Just don’t forget to post a celebratory #shelfie once you’re finished.

Shelfie: Clutter-clearing ideas for stylish shelf art ($11; amazon.com) by Martha Roberts is available for purchase now. Photos by Nick Pope. Reprinted with permission from Mitchell Beazley.