BILLY Might Be an Icon, but IKEA’s HEMNES Bookshelf Is Hands Down the Better Buy

updated Nov 16, 2022
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

The BILLY bookcase is a legend. One of IKEA’s signature products, BILLY models, remain in the company’s catalog year after year, and it even has its own entry on Wikipedia. In 2017, the BBC reported that more than 60 million had been sold worldwide since the bookcase first appeared in 1980. However, this popular shelf and I have never gotten along (sorry, BILLY!). 

We got off to a bad start when I had to assemble one in the office of the start-up magazine I worked at post-college. In the intervening years, I’ve built dozens for photoshoots, and early on in adult life, I owned one that promptly sagged its way into the trash. In my mid-twenties, I moved on to KALLAX (then known as EXPEDIT) and later flirted with wall-mounted shelving. But it wasn’t until about seven years ago that I met the IKEA bookcase of my dreams: The HEMNES.

Credit: Laura Fenton

The Billy Bookcase Alternative: Hemnes

I was on a photo shoot for work, and there HEMNES was—a sturdy, handsome shelf that seemed to say “sophisticated adult library” more than “dorm room placeholder.” HEMNES was more natural looking but with clean, crisp lines that kept its whitewash from going too country. At the time, I was about to move, and I immediately knew I’d buy one for my next apartment. I’m so glad I did: I’ve now bought multiples of these shelves and recommended them to dozens of my friends.

HEMNES is similar to BILLY in dimensions (both are just shy of three feet wide and about six-and-a-half feet tall), but the extra three inches of depth on the shelves makes a world of difference for storing art and children’s books. But what really sets HEMNES apart is the quality of materials. Where BILLY is particleboard, HEMNES is solid pine, which IKEA says is sustainably sourced.

The feel of BILLY’s surfaces is pure plastic, but HEMNES has the satisfying texture of wood grain. Hints of wood knots show through the whitewash stain, and I prefer this quiet, organic look to BILLY’s slick finish. 

Credit: Laura Fenton

Like BILLY, you can place two or more HEMNES side-by-side to fake the look of a larger built-in bookcase, and there are doors you can add on if you choose. Both shelves feature one fixed shelf for added stability and four moveable shelves. But a key difference is that HEMNES’ shelves can be flipped if they start to bow—and they will sag if you cram them full of as many books as I do. BILLY’s shelves have grooved undersides that rest on pegs, making it impossible to rotate the shelves.

Sure BILLY is cheaper ($59 vs. the $149 price tag of a HEMNES), but when you factor in longevity, I think you might come out ahead in purchasing a HEMNES. And with HEMNES’ sturdiness, it’s less likely to end up in the landfill—and quickly—than the BILLY, as long as you don’t get too aggressive with the cookbook stacking. If you’re in the market for a simple bookcase, take my advice and spring for the HEMNES. Your books will thank you.