Such a simple and utilitarian item, a bookcase. Why, then, is it so challenging to find the perfect one? We approached two local furniture experts for a good read on what makes the best bookcase.

1Make it strong. Whether you're buying a traditional bookcase or employing a repurposed piece of furniture, "the No. 1 most important thing when it comes to a bookcase is strength," says Jennifer Litwin, author of two books on buying furniture. Generally, dark woods are stronger than lighter woods, and medium-density fiberboard is good. Plywood and particleboard, not so much. To avoid that awful bowing that happens when shelves sag under books' weight, stick to bookcases with shelves of no less than 1 inch thickness.

When Chicago carpenter Josh Hines is making bookcases, he prefers metal versus plastic hardware for the sturdiest construction possible. He gauges much of a bookcase's strength by simply feeling it with his hands. "You can feel quality," he says. "Sturdy hinges that don't wobble, sturdy slides for drawers, weighty shelves."

2Make it safe. The sometimes tall nature and always heavy contents of a bookcase make it a potentially dangerous piece of furniture, especially around kids. Litwin advises making sure bookcases have some mechanism for securing the top and bottom to a wall.

Hines warns that the bookcase itself is not always the cause of tip-overs. "If the floor you put it on is uneven—especially if it's grading downward—the bookcase will not be secure." Hines counteracts uneven flooring by adding levelers to a bookcase's base or sanding down portions of the feet. Another sure-fire way to avoid this problem, of course, is to place bookcases only on level floors.

3Make it durable. Parents and frequent movers should put stain- and chip-resistance toward the top of their bookcase wish lists. For these concerns, it's all about finishes. Regular latex paint will be vulnerable to stains and nicks but will also be fairly easy to repair with a quick washing or touch-up. Clear and lacquered finishes will stand up to stains and bumps but will likewise resist touch-ups in the unlikely event of a problem. "It's a trade-off," Hines says. "You have to ask yourself how you'll be using the piece and what your lifestyle is."

4Let it grow. Unless you're planning to stop buying books, consider a shelf system that offers add-on capability. Many retailers, including Pottery Barn, IKEA and BoConcept Chicago offer add-on or modular options.

5Think ahead. Both Hines and Litwin recommend buying extra hardware and embellishments at the point of purchase. Litwin learned this the hard way, when her dog ate the leather handle on her new living-room bookcase. She called the manufacturer to order a replacement handle, only to find out it had been discontinued. "It was the most unique feature of the piece," Litwin says. "It drove me so crazy I had to move the bookcase to the basement."

swunderlich@tribune.com