The science and recent history of bookstore design

This content contains affiliate links. When you purchase through these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

In December 2021, Architectural Summary published a feature article about a new bookstore that opened in China’s Shenzhen region. It’s a fascinating structure, with a heavy glass entrance and a literal spiral bookcase. It’s a whimsical and modern bookstore design unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Designed by a Shanghai-based company called X+Living, the designers wanted to “pay homage to the city’s transformation and progress through design.”

Almost 40 years earlier, in 1982, designer Ken White was asked to design the new location of the Duke University Gothic Bookstore, located in Durham, North Carolina. White wanted the bookstore to reflect the Gothic-style buildings of the university. He used custom-designed and hand-carved wood, drawing inspiration from his research on medieval churches. With this, White created a truly remarkable bookstore experience, and he later co-wrote a book on bookstore design titled Planning and design of an independent bookstore.

Many of White’s concepts (for example, how a bookstore should “reflect the style and tradition of its surroundings”) ring true for many independent bookstores today. White and the designers at X+Living were inspired by the location around the bookstore and the traditions of each respective community. With the rise and reliance on Amazon — and another pandemic year — bookstore design continues to modernize and adapt, though the core concepts remain the same.

Bookstore Design in the Age of Borders and Barnes & Noble

James Daunt is Managing Director of Barnes & Noble, the world’s largest retail bookseller, and Waterstones, the UK’s largest retail bookseller. During a video interview, Daunt described bookstore chains in the era of Borders and Barnes & Noble (B&N) as cookie cutters. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it was less about the browsing experience and more about having the stock that customers were looking for.

“In the past, you assumed the customer knew what they wanted,” he said. Having any type of intellectual or emotional experience was not taken into account. Also, there was much less emphasis on lighting and shelving measurement, and the materials were less organic.

“My predecessors would have wanted everything to be in a straight line,” he said. “[They] used metal and paint. I don’t think it’s organic.

Power of the bookseller: yesterday and today

Booksellers also had less power over where books were placed in the store than they do now. There was more of a “commercial dance” between publishers and stores on product placement. “How much are you going to pay me? was a common question between the administrative office and publishers about where the books were placed.

“That’s not how it works anymore,” Daunt said. “Now you get a little note about how fabulous a book is, and we’ll read it, and if it’s great, we’ll publish it. It’s all up to the booksellers. Our job is to make it as easy as possible for them to take good decisions.

It took time to understand the power and influence of good booksellers.

“You need booksellers who can get these books in front of people,” Daunt said. “We had no idea what we had to do two years ago. We just thought we were hoarding books so we got what you wanted. But it’s not the game you wanted. The indies have always understood this.

With the rise of Amazon, customers who knew precisely which books they wanted could now easily retrieve them. Not only was this factored into the closure of Borders and many other B&N stores, but it also required surviving chains to turn to what independent bookstores do best and always have done: Respond to the interests of their clients and the needs and values ​​of the surrounding community.

Lighting and shelving in bookstore design

For independent bookstores, lighting and space have always been important. Bright lighting is important (you read, after all), but natural light was and still is a priority for independent bookstores. What were once clear and straight paths with singular shelves at B&N are now much more varied, something independent bookstores have been doing for some time.

Lighting is crucial

When designing the space for Semicolon library and gallerya black woman-owned bookstore and gallery in Chicago, owner DL Mullen aimed for a quiet experience.

“Our design draws readers in by creating a plethora of open space for readers to move around in,” she said. “My favorite space in my bookstore is the corner seat next to our front window. It gets all the sunlight throughout the day and I love being able to see and talk to people coming in!

Much like White’s concept to reflect the style and tradition of the environment, Mullen said she was inspired by the places she likes to hang out (bars, museums and libraries) to form a “cohesive experience.”

“I wanted it to be as intimate and inviting as possible, so I used a ton of plants, candles, rugs and comfy seating.”

In 2021, the independent bookstore Wild Geese Bookstore in Franklin, Indiana, moved to a new location in the same area. I now work as a bookseller in the new location, which was originally a hotel built in 1911. Owner Tiffany Phillips knew that lighting was central when creating her new space.

Image of the Wild Geese Bookstore in Franklin, Indiana. Courtesy of Wild Geese Bookshop owner Tiffany Phillips.

“My vision was to make sure it still felt like a home with warm, glowing light, rooms that matched the architecture, and functional furniture that reflected the style of the house,” she said. “I like to listen to what the space already offers and let the things that really work guide some decisions.”

Like independent bookstores, Daunt said lighting is much more of a science when designing Barnes & Noble spaces.

“Lighting is crucial,” he said. “Before, they didn’t really have [think about light]. These days you want the science of your lighting to work. You need natural light that doesn’t look like an airport terminal.

Putting the Customer First with Shelving

And instead of a straight line, B&N now puts a lot more emphasis on shelving variations and which shelves match the right books.

“I want [the shelf] be as full as possible,” Daunt said. “I need to be adjustable, and how deep is my shelf? I want the right shelf for the right book. We have three sizes of shelves.

At Semicolon, shelving is essential.

“We’ve done away with the ‘normal’ store shelf design and made it a point to create bright, customer-facing shelves,” Mullen said. “We prioritize a sense of calm, above all else, instead of placing the reader in overwhelming mental space via overloaded bookshelves.”

Wild Geese Bookshop took White’s environmental concept to the next level, using the shop’s kitchen space to store cookbooks and other cooking and food-themed products.

“There’s a kitchen in the house, so naturally I had to think about cookbooks, food writing, gardening and crafts in that space,” Phillips said. “Kitchens are so often the heart of a home, so I wanted ours to feel like coming home after a long journey.”

Create the intellectual and emotional experience

Barnes & Noble sites have had to adapt, especially with the pandemic, to create a better experience for customers. A book found in stores is identical (except perhaps for signed or special editions) to what is found online. The difference is where the book is.

“The Modern Bookstore is about an intellectual browsing environment throughout the store,” Daunt said. “Our job, when you walk into our stores, it’s just fun, it’s exciting, you walk out with books you had no idea you needed, wanted and feel really good about. “

Revamp bookstore design during the pandemic

In March 2020, when many cities were closed due to the pandemic and stores were closed to the public, Daunt made sure B&N locations used the time to reorganize.

“We just told them to take everything off the shelves and organize it in a more interesting way,” Daunt said. “When we reopened, we had different stores and our sales increased. Some stores did it brilliantly, most did it well.

What is interesting is that the stores were given a lot of creative freedom when organizing, which allowed them to respond to the interests of their community. Some places had shelves upon shelves of manga. Locally, I noticed that the B&N in Greenwood, Indiana, expanded its sci-fi and fantasy shelves, separating the genres and allowing them to take up an entire wing of the store.

Daunt said B&N stores that haven’t been as successful in reorganizing have received help from nearby B&N sister sites.

“Good bookstores always borrow from others,” Daunt said.

Prioritize safety and health by design

At Wild Geese Bookshop, Phillips believes the staff experience is just as important as the customer experience, and they influence each other. It was just as important in the new space.

“I also prioritize balancing staff and guest safety while feeling at home in a space,” Phillips said. “I wanted this location to also give guests some distance between them for their health and also for their peace of mind and we were grateful to work with Franklin Heritage, the owners of the property, to build a ramp and restrooms ADA sized for guests.”

The science continues

Bookstores, both independent and chain, have continually had to adapt to the customer experience, especially in recent years. Those who can’t adapt often close, but having a bookstore located in ideal cities for book lovers never hurts.

Whether it’s creating a quiet space for readers, adapting a historic building to the needs of your bookstore, or revamping an entire chain, the science of bookstore design continues to evolve, albeit almost always influenced by their respective communities. And the efforts of owners and booksellers to create a cohesive bookstore design always brings out the best possible customer experience.

“If you pay attention to detail as an experience maker,” Phillips said, “customers feel special and deserve special attention as well.”

About Octavia A. Dorr

Check Also

Coverings Showcases Surfacing’s Best – Kitchen and Bath Design News

Brands and buyers from around the world gathered in Las Vegas in April for the …