Updated: Apr 29
Have you ever wished you could live inside your favorite books? All it takes to transform a basic room into a literary-themed oasis is a few key pieces, and I'm here to show you how! This is part four of my How to Live in a Book series, and today I’ll illustrate the theory behind immersive decorating by showing you exactly how I transformed a long, narrow room into a fun castle room hidden behind a secret bookcase door.
If you'd prefer to watch this discussion on YouTube (with lots more photos!) instead of reading through this whole, long post, please click here!
Just a quick review if you missed the earlier posts … I launched the Storyteller’s Cottage in 2017 to create immersive events based on my favorite books. The commercial property I bought was built in 1891, and I redecorated it so each room had its own distinct theme that could serve as a backdrop for a variety of bookish activities. The living room became the Victorian-themed Jules Verne Steampunk Library, the dining room was transformed into the Regency-era Jane Austen Salon, the sun room became the whimsical Alice in Wonderland Tea Room, an upstairs office became the Magical Common Room, and we even built a bookcase wall with a secret door into a Medieval Castle Keep. Two bedrooms were transformed into escape rooms that were themed to Agatha Christie and time travel, and within months, the whole house was filled with delighted book nerds enjoying enchanted activities like Harry Potter parties, Great Gatsby jazz supper clubs, masquerade balls, Jane Austen tea parties and even live murder mysteries. Today I’m going to show you how I used the same strategies that I normally use to create literary-themed spaces for parties … to transform an entire house. I’ll share all of my secrets so YOU can also create magical, otherworldly spaces, inspired by your favorite books, on a very tiny budget.
Now let’s see how I transformed this long and bland room into a super fun, secret castle-themed room that became the backdrop for all kinds of fantastical bookish activities, including secret book nerd clubs, Dungeons & Dragons games, worldbuilding classes, fortune telling, Harry Potter summer camp, board game nights, live murder mysteries and more. Be sure to check the links at the end of this post to see the rest of the series and how I transformed each of the other rooms at The Storyteller’s Cottage!
This room is located on the second floor of the house, and previously functioned as a long office space, with three desks set along one wall. I’ve been enamored with secret bookcase doors forever, so when I first bought this house and started to brainstorm about how to use this long room, my train of thought went something like this: This room is too long to feel cozy ... maybe we should divide it in two ... oh my God what if we built a secret bookcase door?!
So, I scrambled to learn what it would take to create this kind of wall, and found a bunch of helpful YouTube videos that explained the physics of how to build a door with this kind of depth, how to hide the edges, even what kind of hinges to use.
I was thrilled to see that a bookcase door CAN BE a do-it-yourself project, but it was clear that this particular project would not be MY do-it-yourself project, because not only do I have limited carpentry skills , but because the floor in this room was very sloped from side to side, so the finished wall would be about six inches higher on one end than the other. This was not a project for an amateur!
Luckily, there were already carpenters working in the house on other, more normal projects like boxing in the stairway in the Magical Common Room, so I went to them and described this secret bookcase wall that I was hoping they could build.
So, picture this. I’m standing in this empty room, waving my arms around like a demented mime to try to show them where I wanted this wall and explain how it’s a wall, but it’s a shelf, but it has a door... and this is a group of older gentleman who had actually had their office in this space years ago, so it was very hard for them to imagine it any other way … and they’re all sort of furtively glancing at each other and looking uncomfortable, like “Uh, who’s going to tell her that she’s lost her mind…” But I was convinced that this would be the best use of this space, so I ended up mentioning it to a different carpenter who came in for another project (shoutout to Bill Gleason) and it turned out that he LOVED the idea of building something completely unique, and figuring out how to solve the specific issues around the house being very crooked, so he jumped on the chance to challenge his knowledge and skills - and as you’ll see, he did a fantastic job.
So Bill custom built this awesome bookcase wall that ended up looking like it had always been there. It’s possible to buy ready-made hidden doors for your own house, if you are wanting to build a similar bookcase wall, but as I mentioned, this room was too irregular for a standard solution like that.
So what we have are two fixed shelves on either side, and this middle panel that swings freely on these special invisible hinges that spin on a single pin and will hold up to 300 pounds. You can buy these hinges online as well, but I’ll say again that building this kind of door is a project for a skilled carpenter. I was lucky and I found Bill to handle this part of the project, and he really rose to the challenge.
That left me to just the decorating of the space - I know how to do that! - so let me show you what else I did to make this room feel authentic, like it had always been there.
I first painted all the shelves and trim a dark brown just like the trim in the connecting rooms on this floor, so the space looks more vintage, to match the age of the house. These shelves would never have been white in the Victorian era.
This wall created two separate spaces, one that you walk into first as you come this way from the top of the stairs, and one hidden behind the wall. Let’s talk about these separately.
The first space I decided to furnish as a reading room. I liked to think of it as an Enchanted Library, but no one ever called it that! This little library flowed right into the Magical Common Room on the left, and I couldn’t close it off with a real door because we needed to preserve the access to the emergency door (through the open doorway, to the right), so I decided to decorate the space in coordinating colors and put up a matching curtain across this doorway to define the two spaces.
I extended the same red paisley wallpaper from the Common Room into this library space, and just like it did in all the other rooms of the house, the wallpaper really makes this room look historic and lived-in.
The exact location of this bookcase wall was determined by the location of these windows (we had to put it between them). And these were great to bring in light, but they look out on the back of a more modern commercial building. I didn’t want the view to distract from the feeling of visiting another world, so I covered the glass window panes with this self-stick transparent paper that looks like medieval mullions.
I chose two smaller window treatments for these windows, instead of more of the same long red & gold curtains from the adjoining room, because this room is so small, large curtains would overwhelm it and pull focus from the more important items in the room.
Now here’s the fun part. I found this stunning Victorian-style armoire on Craigslist for just $100, and it became the focal point of the room. You’d think that the bookcase would be the focus here, but since the door is supposed to be secret, I wanted a little misdirection from a stylish piece of furniture. This piece had a mirrored door that opened onto shelves, with two drawers underneath, and these fantastic finials on top that just screamed Victorian Library! This is a new piece, made to look old, and it worked.
The whole space here, from the common room to this library all the way through the castle, was meant to be used as one large space for kid’s activities, so it all needed to flow well together. I made this cabinet into a Snack Shop for The Mysterious Pendragon Society, a group of kids who met here weekly to talk about books, play fantasy board games and make bookish projects, and they could buy things like juice, granola bars and candy out of this cabinet while they were up here.
The rug in this room is a very inexpensive Craigslist find, and in fact, everything in this room came from either Craigslist or my local thrift shop. I added a comfy paisley chair here in this corner with this fantastic floor lamp with a fringed shade to make a little reading nook. Then on the opposite side of the room, I set up this beautiful vintage Victorian game table (this was only $10) with two extra dining chairs to create an inviting spot to play dragon chess.
And on the wall facing the bookcase, which is actually sort of a walkway to the common room, I placed these tiny shelves that came with the freestanding fireplace that I bought for the Agatha Christie room (that I’ll show you in my next post/video). I didn’t need them in there, and they worked perfectly here, because of their narrow profile.
I found some really antique looking art at the thrift shop for just $5 apiece. I added some topiaries and old books for some color on this wall, then I pulled the magical theme from the common room out here to the library with a still life that looks like Harry Potter was just here, with an old trunk, a broom, a birdcage for Hedwig, and a house scarf.
The bookshelves I filled with fantasy-themed books from the thrift shop at just $1 each, but it turned out that the weight of the books on the door was causing it to droop and have trouble opening, it was getting hung up on the carpet, so I replaced the books just in the middle with some of our board games, which are much lighter.
The door itself doesn’t have any doorknob or latch at all - it just swings open when you pull this candle sconce. (Also, here’s a quick view of the back of the door from the inside of the castle room.)
Creating this secret room was So. Much. Fun. And as you would expect, it was such a thrill to watch people’s reactions when they first saw the door open and saw what’s behind it!
So decorating the room behind the wall was very straightforward -- everything here just says castle. No subtlety! As you can see, I used the same wallpaper from the Magical Common Room that looks like stone castle walls (that I found on Amazon). My oriental rug dealer friend found me this really shabby carpet that no one wanted that really looks like it could have been found on the floor in an old castle.
And the workhorse of this room, the Knights of the Round Table table! This was a very lucky Craigslist find. It’s a vintage gateleg table with carved back chairs that resemble something from medieval times, and one large armchair that looks a lot like a throne. The seller told me he used this as his kitchen table for 30 years, and he himself bought it at a garage sale from one of his neighbors. My casual internet research seems to suggest that this table was built around the 1920s, and it’s another great example of how you can find high quality items for a very low price when they’re out of style. Who do you know who would actually put this in their house and use it? Authentic Renaissance furniture costs thousands of dollars, but I paid about $400 for this set - the table plus six chairs - and it’s all because someone just wanted to get rid of a “white elephant” that’s only attractive to a very narrow subset of the population.
The other large item in this room is this gorgeous freestanding cabinet with glass doors and these medieval looking hinges. You know what I’m going to say - I found this for about $50 on Craigslist, and it was this seller, a retired lady who was downsizing, who when she heard what I was furnishing, sold me the Victorian game table in the other room and the old sewing table in the Common Room for just $10. People just want to see their quirky things go to someone who will appreciate them!
I put an assortment of magical items in this cabinet, including some flasks and potion bottles, some spell books, and even a little fairy in a cage, so this room looks like someone gets up to mysterious mischief in here.
I really wanted a suit of armor for my castle, but it turns out that there just aren’t a lot of people selling their suits of armor online! Luckily, I did find this cute little mini suit of armor on Craigslist from a woman who had won it in a raffle. I paid something like $30 for this one.
There are two wooden chests in this room, both of which - spoiler - are locked and hiding clues for the escape room game that ends in this room. I’ll explain more about that in a future post/video when I show you how one of the bedrooms secretly connects to this room through the back door. Right now, I’ll just show you how these chests - especially the big one - actually served multiple purposes. When the escape room wasn’t running, we held other kinds of events in this room like classes, games and parties, and this beautiful chest served as a sort of buffet table or sideboard to hold food or craft supplies. This little chest is actually a vintage tool chest, with some cool interior compartments, and it really helps to suggest age in the room.
I covered the fluorescent lights on the ceiling with these decorative panels, and hung these cool dragon lamps on either side of the door.
A real castle wouldn’t have had curtains like we know them today, they’d have had heavy tapestries which are too expensive for my budget, so I covered these two windows with these printed fabric banners that look like a wooden castle door. These are actually wall decorations from Amazon. I found this cool reproduction tapestry on Craigslist for this wall.
This crazy shield-thing was just $15 at the thrift shop, and these funky royal-looking pictures with red velvet backgrounds were just a few dollars as well.
And that’s how I created a secret castle room at The Storyteller’s Cottage! Before the pandemic, we held all sorts of fun, fantasy activities here, including secret book nerd clubs, Dungeons & Dragons games, worldbuilding classes, fortune telling, Harry Potter and Percy Jackson summer camp, board game nights, live murder mysteries and lots more.
If you ever visited the Storyteller’s Cottage and spent time in the castle, tell us about it in the comments or email a photo to info at storytellerscottage.com!
Stay tuned for Part 5 of the How to Live in a Book series, featuring the renovation of this uninspiring bedroom into an escape room set in Agatha Christie’s 1930’s era bedroom!