In her own words, literary agent Becky Brown never expected to become “a bookshelf influencer”, but judging by the attention her new bookcase has attracted – four million impressions within two days – that is exactly what has happened.
The case in question? An original 1950s Penguin Bookshelf.
It was a normal Tuesday morning when Brown posted a photograph to Twitter of the new arrival in her home. She accompanied it with a winking caption to emphasise the find: the bookshelf was the product of “decades of fruitless searching (by which I mean, three literal years)”. Brown had a modest following of around 1,000 followers, but the post ignited bookish Twitter, many of whom had never known the obscure furniture existed. When we spoke two days later, she was still trying to make sense of it: “it’s had four million impressions so far”.
Brown’s three-year obsession with tracking one down started after spotting her friend’s, which she inherited from her grandmother. “Her grandma always called it ‘the Penguin Bookshelf’, and I really wanted one of those,” Brown says. “I did a lot of searching online using terms such as ‘narrow mid-century bookcase’ and ‘tiny, symmetrical mid-century bookcase’. Then, just on a whim, I did 'Penguin Bookcase’.”
Still, it proved elusive: “It was on like, page 11 of the search results,” says Brown. “But when I found it, I realised it was actually called the Penguin Bookshelf.” That, she says, “is when my hunt began.”
The Penguin Bookshelf was released in 1956 as the result of a collaboration between Penguin and Middlesex furniture-maker Beaver and Tapley. These elegant little bookshelves – just deep enough to accommodate a tri-band Penguin Classic – were advertised via inserts in the books themselves with an irresistible promise: “Form your own neatly sectioned library”.
Beaver and Tapley were a modest business who had become furniture manufacturers almost by accident after desire waned for the trouser presses they made.
“They were a great success in the 1920s and 1930s,” says Roger Richardson, whose grandfather founded the company. “But then my father was left with hundreds of panels to make trouser presses. He ended up making tea trolleys, and then furniture.”
After a hiatus during the Second World War, Beaver and Tapley were after a new, more aspirational approach: prioritising design and quality. A fortuitous meeting between Roger’s father, Justin, who wrote light verse for Punch magazine, and Penguin’s sales manager led to a collaboration: “He came up with the idea to make and market what became known as the Penguin Bookshelf.”
Made of either walnut or teak veneer, the Penguin Bookshelf was conceived by designers so it could either be wall-mounted or propped up on chic little legs. With an affordable price tag of 88 shillings – the equivalent of £106 today – it proved a hit when it debuted at the 1955 Furniture Exhibition to retailers around the country.
“It was an absolute, overwhelming success,” recalls Richardson, now 90. “Part of the sales pitch was that it was going to be advertised within the inserts of Penguin Books.” He estimates that 3,000 orders were placed, from more than 500 retailers including John Lewis and Heals. It took the manufacturers five months to fulfil the swell of orders.
Six decades on, though, and the Penguin Bookshelf is a footnote in furniture history, more likely to be stumbled upon than sought after. By contrast, the 1939 Isokon Penguin Donkey Mark 1– the low-standing, curved plywood number that tops many a design nerd’s wishlist – perseveres as a collectible nearly a century after its creation, even though only a 100 were made. As writer Jane Audas blogged in 2011: “[The Penguin Bookshelf] is not really in the same class as the Isokon… And it can’t be as rare. But I’ve never seen one of these.”
What happened to those thousands of Penguin Bookshelves? For Richardson, the story stopped before 1956 was out. “We waited for the repeat orders to come whizzing in and they didn’t,” he says. “It was a complete trade success, and a complete retail flop.”
Several factors were at play. “One of the things was that people were averse to fixing furniture to the wall. But it was a mistake, from a furniture point of view to call it ‘The Penguin Bookshelf’, because people thought it was made for Penguins only when there were lots of other paperbacks on the market,” Richardson continues. More pertinently, however, nobody wanted to create a “neatly sectioned library” in the mid-Fifties: “People on the whole bought the books, read them, and threw them away,” says Richardson. Finally, an altercation with Penguin’s legal department saw the association withdrawn. “That was the end of it,” he says. The Penguin Bookshelf became a footnote of furniture history.
But the recipe for what turned out to be a failure 70 years ago has proved to be something desirable today, when people are more than used to fixing storage on walls, and organising your bookshelves is an aspirational activity. The Penguin Bookshelf has become an elusive must-have for collectors such as Andrew Malin, who learned of their existence through the adverts printed in Penguin Classics. Malin has amassed six over the years, mostly collected around the country on business trips via public transport – “I have discovered,” he tells me, “that they fit quite neatly on a luggage rack”.
The thousands that were made but then lost to history – due to legal trouble and the deleterious mists of time – have ended up hiding within plain sight. “I have one of these… Found it in a cellar at work,” commented one bookshelf fan named Laura under Audas’ post, in 2014.
This seems to be the way of the Penguin Bookshelf: among the hundreds of envious and admiring replies to Brown’s Twitter post are people admitting that there’s one lurking in their parents’ storage facility, or that they unwittingly bought it on eBay purely because the dimensions worked for a tricky space.
Jenny Arthur, who took over Beaver and Tapley in 2005 with a business partner, struggled to get hold of one for the factory showroom. “There was an antique dealer that had one in Suffolk but it sold,” she explains. “We eventually got one on eBay a few years later. They are quite sought-after; they get sold very quickly if they do come up, which is quite rare.”
Those in the know - and with deep pockets - can acquire a Penguin Bookshelf for around £300 and some savvy saved searches. But as Twitter sensation Brown pointed out, she’s on “a publishing salary” and had an empty flat to fill. “I’m just constantly trawling local auctions,” she says, from her home in Frome. The Penguin Bookshelf now in her possession was listed as a “mid-century bookcase” at a local auction house. “I just saw it. I was like, ‘Nope, I know exactly what that is. It’s a Beaver and Tapley Penguin Bookshelf. For £95 – which is a bargain. And probably the only thing in the world I love more than the bookcase is getting a bargain.”
Judging by the lust Brown’s Penguin Bookshelf has inspired online, it is unlikely few of them will stay bargains for long. I tell Richardson that he was ahead of his time, creating a product that would be coveted by the grandchildren of his original audience. “We were ahead of our time!” he replies, laughing. “May I suggest you get it made and marketed again?”
Image at top: Claire Cheung