I have known the Asklund family for about four years. The wife, Trish (40+, housewife), and I met at Stockholm University where we studied anthropology together. When I told her that I was looking for people who have Billy bookcases in their homes, she responded swiftly, “We have a number of Billy bookcases. Bo (41, software engineer) has been a long time owner, his parents too. He grew up with them; they were new to me when I came to Sweden [Trish is from the United States] that should make for some good sampling for you. Let me know when you want to get together.” So I paid them a visit on a Sunday afternoon in anticipation of some good stories. And I wasn’t disappointed.
There is a total of twelve Billy bookcases in the Asklund family: seven in the living room, two in the master bedroom, one in Julius’ bedroom (their son) and two in the upstairs hall. Trish and Bo wanted the interview to take place in the living room so we ended up talking about the seven Billys there. All the Billys in the house were purchased either in the mid 1990s or early 2000s. Although both Bo and Trish were in the living room when the interview took place, Bo was the main interviewee while Trish was basically in the background “helping out”.
The recipe shelf
Both Bo and Trish share a passion for food, particularly Bo who not only enjoys cooking but is a terrific cook. As a result, there is a lot of cook books and food magazines in their bookcases in the living room. They are particularly fond of the Swedish food magazine called Allt Om Mat which they have started reading since 2000. And they can now proudly say that they have a complete collection of this monthly magazine since 2002.
Bo said, “From 2002, we have everything organized, every issue in order. One year per box [file holder]. It makes it easier to find because we use them a lot, at least a couple of times every week.” The old issues of Allt Om Mat are put in the white file holders in the Billy bookcase, which is located in the not so well-lit hallway between the kitchen and the living room. Each holder contains twelve issues of the magazine (see picture below).
This is the Billy that is frequently accessed since cooking is not only an essential element of life but also a way of life style in this family. This is a family that takes food and cooking seriously. “Yes, we do access this Billy quite often especially when we make the weekly food schedule.” Bo and Trish plan their weekly menu which, according to them, makes it easier to do their grocery shopping and pay attention to their diet in terms of nutrition and to the environment in terms of getting seasonal food. Not only do they have a complete collection of the hard copies of the magazine, they also have them in Bo’s computer. “I have the recipe database in my computer because it’s convenient,” said Bo. Bo’s passion for cooking is perhaps best illustrated by his own unique recipe of barbecue sauce, which, in fact, won the recognition of Allt Om Mat and was published in the June issue of 2006. He got an apron and a diploma from the magazine. Lucky me, they had the sauce in the fridge so I had the honor to taste it that day. “I usually make one or two buckets at a time, a couple of times a year because during the barbecue season we use it quite a lot. Julius uses it for everything except perhaps for the breakfast cereal,” said Bo jokingly oozing a sense of pride.
In addition to the magazines in this Billy bookcase, Bo noted that the cook books that they regularly use are in the kitchen. “But that’s a different topic because it’s not a Billy shelf in the kitchen.” Upon hearing this, Trish immediately raised a question: “And the reason that it’s not a Billy shelf?” I suppose this question was well-justified since there are so many Billy bookcases in the house. Shrugging his shoulders, Bo replied with a simple “I don’t know.” Then they got into a discussion of where Billy should belong.
“Billy doesn’t belong in the kitchen.”
According to Trish, “Billy doesn’t belong in the kitchen.” When I asked her why that is, she said, “well, I don’t know. It’s a mental image I guess. I see Billy as a bookcase although we have glasses and things in it.” Agreeing to his wife, Bo reiterated that Billy is a bookcase that belongs in the study, not in the kitchen. Then he added another practical aspect of a shelf that belongs in the kitchen. “I think Billy is not deep enough for the microwave and oven, and the TV. We have a flat screen TV now but the old TV we had wouldn’t fit. I think that was one of the reasons why we didn’t put a Billy there. Yes, we did discuss putting a Billy in the kitchen. There are multiple reasons but I just don’t have them on the top of my head.” In response to the functionality of Billy, Trish added that the bookshelf they have in the kitchen comes on wheels so “it makes it easier to clean.” Although the bookshelf in the kitchen is not a Billy, Trish remarked that it somehow looks like a Billy. “Yeah, the frame [of the kitchen shelf] is much thicker. It looks like a bulkier version of Billy,” added Bo.
It was interesting to see how the couple was trying to verbalize their relationship with Billy in spatial and functional terms. After the discussion of where Billy belongs, I thought it was necessary to raise another fundamental question: why Billy?
Recalling the first time he purchased a bookcase, Bo noted that it wasn’t that Billy was the only option on his mind but “it turned out to be the best option because I like the design [of Billy].” Bo continued to explain what value he placed on a bookcase and why Billy makes the perfect bookcase for him.
Bo said, “I knew about the flexibility of the shelves […]. The higher ones have the middle shelves that are actually attached to the structure. The other shelves can be moved. With the lower ones, every shelf can be moved. So the flexibility is very high and it’s simple. And if it’s just a bookshelf, I am not gonna spend a lot of money on something just as simple as a bookshelf. If the only purpose is to keep the books there or keep the stuff off the floor, why bother [spending a lot of money]? It’s like considering what I am using it for. It’s just silly to spend more because it is just a bookshelf.”
In response to what her husband was saying about the flexibility of Billy, Trish added that an advantage about Billy is that “you can build up Billy. You can decorate them. I have seen all kinds of things done to them. I have seen people take like contact paper and stuff like that.” For Trish, Billy is not only flexible and simple but also versatile. Nodding to Trish’s comment, Bo thinks that Billy makes a good bookcase because it is “simple to put together, simple to transport, simple to change and rearrange.”
Not only does the Billy bookcase in the hallway keep the Asklund family well-fed and healthy, but it also has another very important role. As shown in the picture below, the top of the bookcase was filled with stuff and it was not immediately clear that there was any kind of organization of it.
I asked Bo to talk about this particular space and it turned out to be his landing spot. “Your landing spot?” I repeated. “Yes, when I come home from work. I put my cell phone, my car key, my watch and stuff like that here. It should be organized a bit. It isn’t but should be,” Bo replied with a smile on his face. Apparently, this landing spot was a rather special, if not an emotionally charged, space in the house as Trish was quick to exchange banter with Bo. Here is some part of the conversation:
Trish: Yes. You can tell how good the food is in the house because the level of organization demanded is so low.Bo: What does that mean? Does that mean I cook good enough so I don’t have to clean?T: That’s basically it. [bursting into laughter]Bo: If I have to tidy up after myself, I won’t have time to cook.
It soon became clear to me that this landing spot is Bo’s spot and no one in the house touches or moves his stuff on this particular spot. Totally intrigued by this off limits zone, I asked Bo to explain to me how he piled things up on this very spot.
Bo said, “Every once in a while, I empty my laptop bag because it’s getting too full. Then this is fishing stuff. And this is an empty box that I forgot to throw away. These are my two sweat shirts. I wear them to and from work and never at home because it’s not cold inside the house.” When I remarked on putting sweat shirts in the bookcase, Bo replied, matter-of-factly, “it’s a landing spot.” As Bo continued to go through the stuff on the landing spot, I noticed how he humanized the things on the shelf.
“When I come home, this guy [pointing to the cell phone] goes here, this guy [the watch] goes there,” explained Bo, adding that the landing spot is for “things that I carry with me outside the house but never at home. Then this is an ink container for a pen. Some batteries and some stuff. Well, these are my kayaking glasses. When I go kayaking, I have two radios with me so that I can listen to the air traffic passing over my head; I can listen to the boat traffic around me. And then you have receipts and boarding cards and things seem to just pile up.” And the small bottles on the left hand side were empty but they remained on the shelf because Bo never got around to throwing them away.
It is worth mentioning that Bo travels a lot because of work, which makes this landing spot metaphor even more evokative. Showing me a measuring scale (see the picture below), Bo said, “technically speaking this is for fish. But I use it for travel bags because you are only allowed to check in 22 kg and this scale goes up to 22 kg. So it usually lives here but it travels with me when I travel longer distance. When I went to China, this guy went with me twice. Went to Silicon valley twice. So long distance travel I bring it.”
After going through the landing spot, Bo felt the need to justify the appearance of his spot and stressed: “just because she [Trish] doesn’t see the organizational pattern in the pile it doesn’t mean that it’s not there.” In response, Trish made an oxymoronic comment: “His spot has always been an organized chaos.” Thinking back in the past, Trish noted that in every place they have lived, there is always a Billy that is Bo’s landing spot. “It’s not always the same Billy but he always has a landing spot on a Billy,” adding that “this is about public and private locations but it’s even more intimate on that level. Isn’t that interesting that there is one spot on one Billy that is off limits.”
Very interesting indeed. Since no one touches this spot, I had to ask Bo if he actually cleans his landing spot, the zone he guards so adamantly. He does. “Every couple of months.” “Will it look very different when you have cleaned it?” I asked. Bo answered with a firm yes and added that “it will be emptier but my pen will still be here.”
“Some stuff just sort of lives there!”
Against the main wall in the living room are four Billy bookcases: two full-size and two smaller ones. There is a variety of things on the bookcases. Take the two big ones for example, on the top of the bookshelves are some bottles or in the words of Bo, “nice bottles live here.” These bottles are there for decorative purposes. On the top of the Billy to the right are some bottles that “have meanings as well” as Trish remarked. There is a bottle of champagne which they called it “the wedding bottle” and then there is the wedding bouquet right next to it. You can see the Swedish and the American flags behind the bouquet.
The big Billy to the left holds some nice wine, champagne and martini glasses which are not used very often. They are “low use items and more for display” as Trish noted. Bo added that they do use these glasses sometimes for special occasion. “It’s better to have them here than upstairs or in the attic because sometimes we do use them. And it’s nice to look at them.”
Among the fine glasses, some are bohemian crystal glasses of very good quality. I asked Bo whether they bought these glasses themselves or they were gifts. “We got them from my parents. A couple of times primarily from my mother. It was Christmas presents or something like I think,” replied Bo. Right next the crystal glasses from Bo’s parents are two crystal cups with saucers, which Bo took from the shelf and showed them to me (see the picture below). These two cups are also made of bohemian crystal glasses but they are not from Bo’s parents. There is an interesting story behind these fine cups.
Thinking back in 1986, Bo recounted, “in the fall of 1986, I was attending the world championship in amateur radio direction finding in Sarajevo. It’s like orienteering except that instead of marking those things on the map, you don’t have any marks. You get a map and it is empty. On each station, there is a transmitter and you have a direction finding equipment, it’s a radio, so you can look for it. They transmit one at a time on the same frequency so you have to keep track of which one is transmitting now and time, and listen to what they say. It’s just like orienteering except that you don’t get to know in the beginning where they are. You have to find them yourself.
Now, when we were there in Sarajevo, [there were] two ladies from the Czechoslovakian team. They were in their mid-20s and I was almost 17. One of them seemed to be particularly fond of me. The girl thought that I brought her good luck. I was like a talisman or something like that. She actually used the word: talisman.”
Sitting on the armchair in the living room, Trish couldn’t help but joke about Bo being a talisman so she said laughingly, “something that she wanted to carry in her pocket.” Laughing at his wife’s comment, Bo continued with his story. “That was the only world championship I actually attended. A couple of times later, my mother actually met her and she handed over those two cups and asked my mom to give them to me for being good for luck. She did pretty good in 86. I don’t know if it was because of me though.”
After relating the nice story of these two crystal cups, Bo briefly went through the objects on the other shelves in this bookcase, which are books, fictions mainly. Then something caught my attention (see the picture below).
“What is this?” I asked. Bo took it from the shelf with a somewhat smug smile on his face and said, “this is a broken hammer.” The story behind it was that a friend of Bo’s was helping out when the Asklund moved into their current house about five years ago. This friend was a strong man; he was trying to pull something out of the wall by using this hammer. But “the hammer broke. Yes, he managed to bend the hammer. And we decided to frame the hammer so it now looks like a piece of art,” explained Bo.
As we moved from the Big Billy to the smaller ones, I couldn’t help but notice the stuff that was spreading on the top of the bookcases (see picture above). There are DVDs, magazines, fishing stuff, a candle, a cable and so on. According to Trish, there is a lot of stuff that doesn’t belong there, “some stuff just sort of live there.” Bo started to go through some of the things and told me why they were there in the first place. “This cable landed here when we connected the TV to the other computer and we tried to switch the screen. It got stuck here.” Added to what Bo said, Tirsh noted that basically everything that is not decorative doesn’t belong there. So what are the decorative things? It will be the horse to the left and the candles to the right. Two objects out of all the things on that surface!
“Sometimes you put one thing down and think that you will deal with it later and then you forget about it. Some stuff here is from my paddling exercises and they have been there since last summer,” explained Bo. Being a good friend, Trish was honest and said, “had you been a guest so to speak, we would have moved everything out of the way. It will look like what it’s supposed to look. But we promised that we wouldn’t move anything.” “We didn’t even move my joggling balls,” added Bo.
In response to Bo’s comment, Trish said, “they live there though.” “It’s like the candles,” (see picture above with caption of the wedding meaning) Trish continued, “I think they are there as a reminder of what came before. That’s why they sit out in front of the books. You know a lot of the stuff that is there is just there. It doesn’t live there. The candles live in the bookcase somewhere and they get moved around from time to time but they live there. Like the hammer, it lives in the bookcase and gets moved around sometimes. The same with the joggling balls. They live on the bookcase somewhere but they will get moved.”
From public access to private access
In addition to the stuff that just lives on the bookcases, Trish and Bo also shared with me how they arrange their books on different Billys in the house. Since the living room is often the main space where guests are entertained, some people may be quite careful with what kind of books is put in this particular space. For the Asklund family it’s the other way around.
“I have not made a conscious decision of what books to be put here. It’s more like when there are books that I do not want to show to people, I will put them elsewhere. So I don’t pick the books that go here [the living room] but I do pick the books that don’t go here,” explained Bo. He went further to add that there are some books that he may not necessarily want to advertise actively. “[…] not that I want to hide them but there are books that would perhaps raise more questions than they would answer.” I asked him to give me an example without violating his intimate relationship to some books.
Bo tried to explain to me without having to name some of the “intimate” books he has. “There are books of a generic kind; the encyclopedia for example is down here. Things that are more, what should I say, of esoteric nature, not for everyone that is… If I have books that I tend to read, how should I put this?” Trish helped and said, “privately.” “Yes, books that I read in private,” emphasized Bo, “will be in the bedroom” where there are two Billy bookcases.
What is being discussed here is how Bo relates to books in spatial terms. Bo continued to tell me where different kinds of books live in the house. “The books I read, for example, half an hour before going to bed will be in the bedroom. Some books that are related to applied math live on the radiator in the bathroom upstairs. Books I read when I am in the tub reside in the bathroom. Books of spiritual nature, more than just simple reference work reside in the bedroom because those are books I read in private. I read them in private not because I don’t want to show them to people but because when I read books like that I have to focus. Books that require undisturbed environment I read in the bedroom and they reside in the bedroom.” Responding to Bo’s relationship to different types of books, Trish added that “it has to do with the level of intimacy about subject matter or the attitude surrounding.”
Yet the relationship between intimacy and space takes on a different dimension when Bo said that “certain things I will not read in the kitchen even if I knew that I was alone in the house. I will read in an undisturbed setting because up there [in the bedroom] I am shielded from the wall around me. I am more disturbed by people moving outside the window when I am in the kitchen. If I read things that I have to focus, I will do that in an undisturbed setting.”
It is very interesting to listen to how Trish and Bo talked about why and how things are placed in their bookcases. The language is very vivid as they used words like “live”, “reside” and “guy” to describe what is in their bookcases. I was not allowed to take pictures of nor talk about the books in their Billys in the bedroom. Their decision of what goes to the living room and what doesn’t says something about how they relate to the different spaces in the house. There is a level of intimacy involved in the process of placing books in their Billy bookcases.
I think I’ll stop here since I have made this post way too long.