Here's what we started with:
I cleaned everything off, and started by applying a fresh coat of paint to the bookshelf. I wanted to keep the cost of the project down, so I used some light gray paint that I already had on hand from the armoire stenciling project. When I first started painting I was worried that the color might be too light and not contrast enough with the once-white-now-somewhat-gray walls, but I reassured myself that paint always dries darker. And also the light in the room was really low since I was painting at night, but I knew it would look better in daylight. In addition to painting the bookshelf, I painted the "back" of the bookshelf, which is technically just the wall since it's open-backed. My plan was to keep things relatively muted and subtle, with a light gray structure and then the back a stenciled white pattern on top of the gray.
I used a Martha Stewart stencil that I bought at Michael's -- about $8 with a 50% off coupon. The stencil took awhile to apply because of all the irregular spacing and tight corners. I had to find some creative ways to bend it, tape it off, and even free-hand paint at times to keep the pattern consistent in all the right places. Basically I taped it loosely in place, painted over it, then removed it and repositioned it. I alternated between shelves to give the paint some time to dry in each section before returning to it. Stenciling requires going very light on the paint so that it doesn't pool in the corners or smear. In this case, I went for a bit of a rough look rather than having everything perfectly crisp, since the circumstances didn't lend themselves to perfection....
Here's the stenciling in action. The blue is the color of the stencil, but then I painted over it with white paint which is why the plastic now appears white. As you can see, I've already painted over about half of the stencil, which is the part that's completely white. The part that's still gray is where I have yet to stencil.
And voila, the the finished result!
I have some other plans for the space including some new artwork I'm working on, so things are still looking a bit bare. But I'm quite pleased with the bookshelf makeover!