Beautiful browsing

As the on-line book market goes from strength to strength, could appealing interior design be enough to change the fortunes of conventional bookstores? Clare Dowdy explores how bookshops are fighting back around the globe

How do you compete with the on-line sales and supermarket discounters as a conventional bookshop? You can take them on at their own game, with ‘three for two’ offers and such like. Or you can try to create a retail environment that’s a destination in its own right.

From a design point of view, the latter is, of course, the more appealing route, and perhaps the one that is the more enduring as a specialist retail offer.

Already in 2005, specialist chains and independents were estimated to account for less than 50 per cent of total book sales, according to Mintel’s Books report. ‘It is unlikely that specialist retailers will be able to avoid this inevitable long-term trend [of discounting]. They can, however, work on convincing the consumer that they offer an added value proposition, in terms of relaxed environment, expertise, and range of titles,’ its report stated.

The upshot is some good-looking and ingenious schemes all over the world. From China to the Netherlands, bookshop owners are creating a memorable and user-friendly customer experience. At this end of the market, it’s all about theatricality, says Echochamber creative director Howard Saunders, citing as an example the ‘sense of place’ created in Borders’ coffee shops.

Kid’s Republic in Beijing has gone several steps further, but then this shop is about children’s picture books. It is owned by Japanese company Poplar Publishing, which plans to follow this store with another site in China. Beijing-based architect SKSK has really gone to town with the scheme, with two types of colourful ribbons creating a place that both creates and cultivates children’s curiosity, says SKSK founder Keiichiro Sako.

The designers have cut out holes in the bookshelves themselves, to act as reading spots for children. ‘Their silhouettes can be seen from outside, so that they become elements of the facade,’ Sako explains. Because sitting is very important among Chinese readers, ‘Some people sit on the floor to read,’ he says. ‘The habit is not so refined, but it is a most natural desire to buy books carefully and enjoy reading,’ he adds.

Bookshops tend to be vast in China, on the scale of a library or department store. In fact, Blackwell, which has spent the past 18 months rebranding with Checkland Kindleysides breakaway The One Off, is planning to open the world’s biggest bookshop there.

The Japanese, too, have big bookshops to compete with their rivals, and SKSK is working on a 4250m2 bookshop there, although Sako declines to reveal details.

The designers at Marmol Radziner and Associates in California have also turned their hand to big spaces. The consultancy’s reworking of art and architecture bookstore Hennessey & Ingalls in Santa Monica involved creating a space that would accommodate no less than 50 000 volumes.

‘The design concept was to insert a folded wood and concrete “box” into an existing concrete shell,’ says Ron Radziner, design ‹ principal of Marmol Radziner. ‘Upon entering the building, the original concrete floor appears at the front of the store. Visitors then proceed up a ramp into the box, which folds across the walls and floor in the form of maple bookshelves, a silver birch-coloured carpet floor, and carpet wall panelling. The continuous surfaces lead to an open ceiling that exposes the original concrete shell.’ He likens these surfaces to a theatrical stage set, with the exposed lights hanging down from the ceiling. It’s more industrial chic than cosy, which is perhaps fitting for its target audience.

Art book publisher Taschen has taken a different route to attract target punters to its standalone stores. All designed by Philippe Starck, some, like Paris and Los Angeles, are more like upmarket fashion boutiques than bookshops – the adjectives dark, lavish and decadent spring to mind.

The design for the London store, which opens in late spring, is still under wraps. ‘All I can say at the moment is that the London store will look more like LA than New York. We will use dark brown wood again. And, of course, we will have a special artist to create art for the store again,’ says Andrea Spiess, Taschen’s retail operations manager. Regardless of the feel of the interiors, the display areas will be configured so that books are presented with their covers face up, with an open copy nearby so people are encouraged to browse.

‘I worked for Books Etc for nine years, when it went away from the traditional library environment with high shelves to a more open-plan, customer-friendly place,’ says Gerard Turner, store manager of Taschen London. ‘Now customers can navigate modern bookshops without the aid of staff, because they have in-store directories like department stores and clearer section headings.’

Blackwell, too, has reconsidered its displays, as can be seen in the two completed stores in Portsmouth and Sheffield. And The One Off has introduced bright graphics for promotions.

To create a real sense of destination and theatricality, one Dutch chain turned to Creneau International. Plantage Books & More’s recent redesign has seen its stores divided into an impulse zone (for browsing), a destination zone (for more in-depth visits), and a zone of kiosks where customers can get access to the on-line shop.

As GDR Creative Intelligence editor Lucy Johnston puts it, ‘it’s really smart in that it incorporates on-line shopping into the store format so that customers get the best service – the emotional engagement of physical browsing and the convenience of on-line shopping and delivery. And it’s a great green colour.’

But for every alluring interior design job, another handful of independent bookshops around the world closes. A recent victim is the Murder Ink Bookstore in New York, which opened in 1972 and claimed to be the world’s oldest mystery bookstore.

Such news can’t help but be emotive for designers of niche or specialist environments. The question is whether, in the long run, design can help stem the flow of bookshop casualties, small or large.

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