Take it as read: bookshops can use design to survive in the digital age

Despite the omnipresence of e-books and online libraries, bricks and mortar retailers such as Taiwan’s Eslite, which has stores here, are redefining book culture through chic cafes, cosy nooks, high-end design and 24-hour shopping

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 February, 2016, 6:01pm
UPDATED : Friday, 26 February, 2016, 3:56pm

There was much ado in literary circles about British book retailer Foyles’ 2011 decision to fend off the digital media onslaught by investing in an “experience” bookstore. As in an actual, bricks and mortar shop.

“You can sit at home and buy a book, and have it delivered to your door, but you don’t get that social interaction,” says Janette Cross, Foyles’ head of customer experience, who notes a returning fondness for the immersive experience of browsing and sharing.

So in the face of market research predicting the demise of the printed word, Foyles closed its London flagship – a literary institution for 85 years – to open a highly designed new “experience” store a few doors down on Charing Cross Road.

It worked, from a commercial viewpoint, and Foyles has now expanded the concept to new stores in Birmingham (opened September 2015) and Bristol (last December). But while Foyles was lauded for its pluck in reviving reverence for the book, Freeman Lau, a Hong Kong-based designer, points out that the Chinese have been doing so for years.

He’s alluding to Eslite, the famous Taiwanese bookstore chain with stores throughout Taiwan, the mainland and Hong Kong, which has been redefining book culture since in 1989. Though its range of books is impressive, chic cafes, cosy nooks and high-end design have become the hallmarks of the Eslite brand.

While other retailers were still sleeping, Eslite introduced 24-hour shopping, its stores drawing late-night crowds intent on browsing, not boozing. Even the A list set are getting in on the act. “After midnight,” says Lau, co-founder of KL&K Design, a Hong Kong and mainland-based design studio, “you can go to Eslite and see movie stars.”

Extrapolating its successful theme, the brand has even opened the first Eslite Hotel, where the lobby is like an intimate library, and bookshelves in the 99 guest rooms are stocked with curated collections.

David Hong of EHS ArchiLab, architect, project manager and designer of Eslite Hotel, says the brief was not to build a traditional luxury hotel, but imagine a privileged lifestyle.

The site is within an old factory complex in Taipei dating from the Japanese colonial era, recently repurposed as cultural space.

A bookstore sits next to the hotel, but independently. “You go into the lobby, and feel a sense of privacy – inviting you to sit and read a book quietly,” says Hong. Guest rooms have a warm ambience – lighter, textured brick walls and polished concrete – which are traditional materials used in Taiwan houses, and also, he adds, “relate to how an intellect should be living”.

Hong agrees that Eslite has made literary culture more accessible. Eslite Hotel, opened early last year, received a best design award at Taiwan’s 2015 Golden Pin design competition.

KL&K Design explored the theme when it was commissioned in 2014 to create a total branding and space concept for Reading Mi bookstore in Shenzhen. Designer Ko Hong, partner in charge of the project, says that bookstores nowadays can’t maintain revenue by just selling books. Hence, he says, Reading Mi is more than just a bookstore but “a multihyphenated lifestyle destination that lends richness to the physical retail experience.” The project is a Golden Pin Design Award 2015 Design Mark recipient.

Targeting the location’s younger population, the bookstore makes up a third of the 994 square metre space, with the remaining areas allocated to a cultural section, a cafe, and a children’s illustration area.

“At Reading Mi,” says Ko, “visitors can spend their leisure time poring over books, but also shop for cultural design products, drink coffee, and participate in workshops and seminars.” There’s magic afoot, he adds. “Reading Mi is a place to search for your inner self. The bookstore is the cultural core, everything else spirals around it.”

The overall layout of the store follows the linear grid of bookshelves, Ko explains. “A cylindrical floor-to-ceiling bookshelf with cushioned seating serves as a focal point. Inspired by the British Museum Library, we wanted to create a noble yet embracing feeling of humanity. We call it ‘the man and book united nook’, which serves as a strong visual DNA as well as a social media photo opportunity (which has proven to be quite successful).”

By incorporating multiple retail and lifestyle experiences in a single, cohesive space, Reading Mi has considered all ways to attract the customer of today, Ko says. The brand is planning to set up its chain in Guangdong province first and then spread to the rest of China. Its second shop opened in October 2015, and the third is scheduled for May 2016.

In London, the architect of Foyles’ new flagship, Alex Lifschutz, of Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, agrees that Foyles was “incredibly brave” to make such an investment in the midst of recession, and at a time when selling books was becoming “extremely difficult”. Focus groups with industry representatives revealed the need to bring immersive qualities in store – events, talks, and music – creating “almost like a book-centred village feel”, he explains.

Situated in the former home of Central Saint Martin’s College of Art & Design, it was a beautiful building to begin with. “Our design has stripped away a century’s ad hoc accretions to reveal the original structure,” says Lifschutz. By enlarging the existing central lightwell, an atrium brings daylight in. Instead of the labyrinth of old, the new bookshop is devoid of walls – the bookshelves provide the partitions; the books create the journey.

“The book stack partitions have the natural property of absorbing sound and provide a magical way to juxtapose quiet browsing with different music (jazz and classical, for instance) and film departments, author talks and happenings without walls or doors,” says Lifschutz, “so walking through the store is a much more dynamic and immersive experience.” A new cafe, gallery, jazz record shop and event space allow for in-store events.

Lifschutz sees an opportunity for booksellers to make a book purchase part of a more meaningful experience – “a glorious meal rather than a snack”. Much like progressive greengrocers have done to counter competition from supermarkets: redesigning stores to present their wares in a more appealing way.

“None of these things are rocket science – the ingredients of the meal are pretty much the same. It’s whether you can put them together in a way that makes the meal intriguing, fun and tasty,” Lifschutz says. To that end, he adds, architecture “is just one part of the story”.

“My advice to booksellers is step outside themselves, think about what makes their local environment unique, what is special about their local community and focus on providing a customer experience that cannot be matched by digital bookselling.”