Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands’ flagship bookshop for Foyles sets out to provide a retail experience that challenges online alternatives, writes Rakesh Ramchurn. Photography by Hufton + Crow
The book selling trade has taken a series of blows in recent years: Amazon sells books at discounted prices and delivers straight to your door; ebooks can be downloaded at the touch of a button; and the sheer wealth of content on the internet means many find the information they need online and can dispense with print altogether. How does a bookshop cope?
Foyles was in a better position than many as the recession hit. The independent bookseller had its flagship store on Charing Cross Road with a strong brand and a loyal customer base. However, it had been felt for some time that the 113-119 Charing Cross Road premises (its third incarnation on the street, and home to the store since 1929) was no longer up to the job.
So discussions began in 2008 with Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands on redeveloping a site just a few footsteps away at 107 Charing Cross Road, recently vacated by Central Saint Martins School of Art following its move to King’s Cross. The bookshop would occupy the building’s basement and first four levels. The remaining three levels, plus an added storey, were redeveloped by Darling Associates into 13 penthouse flats, marketed as the Saint Martins Lofts and sold, together with the former site, to help finance the project.
The new store provides an even bigger area from which to sell books, but Foyles’ management understood that confronting the digital onslaught meant more than just having more titles on offer. Operations director Sean Hamilton says they decided to focus on distinguishing the store from its online competitors, rather than trying to emulate the internet’s seemingly infinite choice.
‘You don’t really browse the internet,’ says Hamilton. ‘The internet is just selecting titles and throwing them at you. You can’t beat a physical space for wandering around and literally tripping over something new.’
Regular shoppers at the old store may recall just how literal the tripping over could be, such was the rabbit warren confusion of rooms within rooms, tight stairwells and poor way-finding. In many ways, the idiosyncrasies were part of the shop’s charm. But when fighting for customers who could just as easily buy books from the comfort of their armchairs, the act of browsing had to be brought up to 21st-century standards, and a key part of the brief was to create a sense of openness and scale lacking in the previous store.
This was done by gutting the building and shaping the new development around a central atrium defined by the staircase that rises through the structure, forming the heart of the new store. The layout is reminiscent of Alvar Aalto’s Academic Bookstore in Helsinki, and gives visitors a sense of the size of the new building (from the main entrance it’s possible to see all the way through to the back wall) while the atrium provides a fixed point of navigation.
A blessing of the building’s structure was that levels were stepped between the east and west of the building, connected by half-flights of stairs, which allowed for easy navigation between floors.
‘The levels on the front and the back ends of the building don’t run though,’ says practice director Alex Lifschutz, ‘which is brilliant, as it means that when using the stairs, you only have to go up half a flight. It’s as though you are barely moving to cross the building, then you go up another half flight to get back again, and you have gone up a level without realising.’
Another key feature of the central atrium came from one of the workshops Foyles ran with journalists, writers, consumer analysts and booksellers to garner ideas for the final development. One participant came up with the idea of a Yo! Sushi-style conveyor belt bringing books to shoppers. Although impractical, the idea was flipped, so that as the shoppers move up the stairways, recessed shelving and lecterns along the route display a continuous selection of books. The concept has worked well, with visitors pausing to pick up titles as they walk across floors and up through the building.
While the café in the old building was a cramped affair, the new café, now sadly shorn of its jazz bar, occupies a larger area on the third floor alongside a gallery space. An events space had to be created as a condition of planning consent, and this occupies the top level of the store. Foyles has long held book readings and other events, but these often took place without other visitors being aware of them, such was the old store’s labyrinthine nature. Now, the events space is screened with a glass partition, meaning customers in the café opposite, or those navigating the atrium, can see the buzz of activity.
In contrast to the dark palettes of many bookshops, Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands plumped for a monochrome colour scheme, with whitewashed interiors, glass partitions and balustrades, and wooden shelving. Services are exposed, lending an industrial feel to parts of the building, and helping keep costs down.
There are also some interesting references to the site’s art-school history. On the ground level, the battered wooden floorboards of Central Saint Martins’ old assembly hall have survived the redevelopment (stand among the aisles of children’s books and you’ll be on the very spot where the Sex Pistols played their debut gig almost 40 years ago), while the front of the store has been allocated to art, architecture and photography books, in reference to the building’s creative past.
The front of the store also hosts the shop’s magazine display, an eclectic collection of titles recalling the vast magazine collection once found on the ground floor of Borders, the bookseller that occupied a site further up Charing Cross Road until it dissolved its 45 UK stores in 2009. Perhaps Foyles has learnt one trick from the internet: that of long-tail distribution, of having at least one product for as many different customers as possible.
One key challenge in a project that emphasised the depth and openness of the structure was to ensure customers did not feel overwhelmed by the space. As an example of what he wanted to avoid, Hamilton cites HMV on Oxford Street, whose cavernous interior confronts visitors with the full scope of the music retailer’s catalogue, leaving shoppers unsure where to start.
At Foyles, spaces are scaled down to a more human level through the use of bookshelves as partitions. The architect spent much time with the client designing the configurations of retail floors, while ensuring there was space for the bookseller to stock its target of 200,000 individual titles with an average of four copies for each book.
The result is a varied range of displays. Academic books are stored in library-style, back-to-back shelving, while children’s books are in cloister-like spaces off the ground-floor atrium. Areas are broken up by seating, tables and lectern displays, and all shelving and display units can be adjusted or replaced to form new arrangements.
‘You’ve got a relatively open space, compared to the old shop,’ says Lifschutz. ‘The bookshelves can be used as partitions, which means Foyles can become their own architects in a sense, changing layouts as they see fit.’
Hamilton summarises the brief as being ‘to create a destination people would want to visit to buy a book, rather than just sitting at home and doing it online’, so the emphasis of the project was on making the experience of browsing and wandering - the elements which divide physical bookshops from online retailers - as simple and pleasurable as possible. That’s not to say that Foyles disavows all the benefits of technology. The new Foyles app allows shoppers to look up which books are in stock, while handy maps plot a route direct to the relevant bookshelf. Digital isn’t all bad.