June 4, 2014

The MobyLives verdict on the Architect Firms who want to Reinvent the Bookshop


Are architects the best people to dream up the bookshops of the future?

Are architects the best people to dream up the bookshops of the future?

As Foyles prepares to open its new London flagship store next week, readers, customers and design and architecture aficionados are all excited to see what Foyles, and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, the architecture firm who worked on the new building, will unveil. Will the vast new store reimagine what a bookshop should do and be, and how will it future-proof itself for the coming years? Will it be classic or high-tech; how will it lead us around the store? And most importantly, will it make us buy more books?

Taking its cue from such questions, the magazine Intelligent Life asked four architects to “create the bookshop of their dreams”. Noting the rise in digital, the threat of Amazon, and the decline of the British high street, it gave the architecture firms a hypothetical £100,000 budget and a challenge to save the bookshop, asking “could design go further, and lure us away from our tablets and back onto the high street?”

Below we summarize some of the ideas dreamed up by the architects, and give our reaction to each one:


From the architect who helped design Apple’s store on Regent Street in central London, Jon Tollit, came a predictably Apple-y design. The store’s glass façade would be a touch screen, so customers could buy ebooks, “the whole catalogue of the British Library” without even entering the store. There would also be a paperback vending machine. Inside, a long table running down the store would display new titles, and would lead to the pièce de résistance at the back of the store: a wall of books, with their spines spelling out the internet speak tl;dr: Too Long, Didn’t read.  This would also be the name of the store. Ironic, of course. Tills would be exchanged for staff carrying card readers, “you sell a lot more. You don’t allow the customer to wander off and change their mind.”

The MobyLives verdict

The only way this store could be any more like Apple is if it actually sold iPads, which it probably would. It seems lazy to equate making something new with making something look like Apple, so Gensler loses points for this. I like the idea of using the front of the store to sell ebooks, and pulling people to the back of the store towards a wall of plenty of books.

Gensler also described their concept as a “a kit of parts” and had a scale-up/scale-down idea which meant aspects of the store could be created anywhere, from a railway station to the end of Brighton Pier, where a vending machine would sell copies of, you guessed it, Brighton Rock. Finding ways to integrate books into more public spaces is a great idea. Thumbs up.

But “tl;dr” makes me shudder all over. This should never, ever, ever happen.


20.20 put a twist on the bookshop café by designing a “Yo! Sushi-style conveyor belt delivering short reads and reviews to consume with your coffee.” Shelving units at hip-height would give customers something to do immediately upon entering, “a place for nervous shoppers to hover while they orientate themselves in an unfamiliar place”. The showpiece here would be a tree, linking the floors of the bookshop. Face-out displays would be backed up by drawers which would display the cover of the book, and then contain the author’s backlist inside. Customers would also be able to rent a desk, or self-publish in-store. The shop would be called “The Art of Storytelling”, because “stories endure, no matter what form books take.”

The MobyLives verdict

If this exercise teaches us anything, it’s that you should never let an architect name your bookshop. But I would let 20.20 design a bookshop’s café, the conveyor belt is a cool idea, but only if didn’t end up being too distracting. The book drawers make “discoverability” a reality, and a joyful one at that, and turning bookshops into a place where writers can write is genius, and would secure a new revenue stream.

Is the tree meant to represent the destruction of nature at the heart of the publishing industry? If so, surely we should hide that shame.


Books would be only one of the things this “bookshop” would sell. This space would be “more of a gallery, showcasing particular books alongside related merchandise”.  So, for example, a display of cookery books would be accompanied by pots, pans and all items related to kitchens and cookery. “My frustration [at the moment]”, said the architect Burdi, “is that I buy the book, then I have to go to another store to buy the product.”

The MobyLives verdict

Stop this man now.

As the Intelligent Life article notes, many of the architecture firms had overlapping ideas, and, most of them, are pretty savvy:

They all give you something to do with your hands, at table height, as soon as you enter. They all have a double-height feature that both identifies the brand and draws the customer deeper into the space. Gensler chose to put their store on one floor, but said the wall spelling tl;dr [remember this should never, ever, ever happen] would work as well over two or more storeys. They all use hand-held card readers. The stores are flexible: the furniture can be moved and the books frequently changed or—a word that came up a lot—“curated”. Most significantly, all these future bookshops integrate technology both to expand the range of product (to rival Amazon in scope if not price) and to enable customers to do something in-store that they couldn’t do on a smartphone—to beat Amazon on experience.


Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.