Foyles' new flagship opens its doors

Foyles' new flagship opens its doors

Foyles is set to open its “dazzling” multi-million pound new flagship store tomorrow (7th June)—the largest bookshop to open in the UK this century.

Chief executive Sam Husain said the 37,000 sq ft four-storey retail space heralds “a new era” for Foyles and will ensure the 111-year-old bookseller’s future for the next century.

The design reveals a spacious, bright and open bookshop with towering windows and an enlarged central atrium to bring natural light into the building. The walls are painted brilliant white, with striking red display units, while a wide staircase connects four floors in the form of eight alternating footplates, which in the words of architect Alex Lifschutz from Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, means “as you cross from side to side you are hardly aware that you are also moving up or down the building”.

Glazed-fronted lifts will carry people from floor to floor while browsing areas are flexible, giving booksellers the freedom to change displays and departments according to reading trends and events.

The site—at 107 Charing Cross Road, just a few doors down from the flagship’s previous location—was the former home of Central Saint Martin’s College of Art & Design, where the likes of Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and Frank Auerbach studied. The design pays tribute to this artistic history. “This project inserts this most famous and much-loved bookshop into the inspirational former home of one of the UK’s most creative arts schools,” said Lifschutz. “In this context our design has merely had to clarify and simplify the existing building, to let light into it and let it be filled with wonderful books—to make them the real draw.”  The new store will stock 800,000 books, employing 80 staff.

Digital discovery

The project is the culmination of three years of dedicated planning, fusing the vision of the architects, Foyles’ booksellers and suggestions from people across the industry who attended a series of workshops held in partnership with The Bookseller last year to discuss what a “bookshop of the future” might look like.

Many of the workshop ideas inspired the design, including the decision to cut lecterns into the atrium so that customers can pick up books as they travel up the staircase. The idea originally came from a workshop attendee, who suggested having a Yo Sushi!-style conveyor belt of books running through the store. “I envisage we will use these to push particular books on big launches, or big prize winners—imagine if you walked up the staircase and every lecturn was filled with Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies,” said Sion Hamilton, manager of the new flagship shop.

The store also set out to incorporate digital technology, and a “digital shopping service” will launch in beta tomorrow, enabling customers to browse stock availability and locate books using an interactive map. The project is the UK’s first digital in-store search facility with mapping. Foyles Book Search will automatically appear in the browser of smartphones when customers connect to the store’s WiFi. The tool, developed in partnership with Oxford digital agency White October, can instantly search and check the availability of 200,000 titles the store has in stock, as well as CDs, DVDs, sheet music and gifts. “Foyles Book Search has the potential to create delightful new paths of discovery in our new bookshop,” Husain said.

The Foyles board made the decision to buy the lucrative city-centre building—the top three floors of which contain apartments—in a multi-million-pound “statement” investment to secure the bookshop’s future. “This whole process started about 12 years ago,” Christopher Foyle, chairman of Foyles, told The Bookseller. “Saint Martin’s told us that it was thinking of moving to new premises. We have been in this current building for over 100 years, but it is basically five buildings that have been tacked onto each other at different times. I thought if the Saint Martin’s building became available then it would be great as there is much more space. We embarked on a three-year refurbishment programme and during that process we had some of the worst periods of the (economic) crash but we didn’t falter. That shows how strongly we felt about the move.”

Foyle said that the future of the company was in diversifying and becoming a place people felt enriched by visiting. “Bearing in mind what is going on in the market at the moment with Amazon, internet sales increasing and digital book sales rising, if we are going to stick around as a physical bricks and mortar store then we have to be more energetic and focused about what we are offering,” Foyle said. “The past 100 years have been a different time to what we are facing now. We have to diversify. If it was just about the building we would have closed the current store tomorrow and rented it to Sainsbury’s or Armani. But we wanted to invest in our future.”

On the move

Initial suggestions to move and modernise the store “divided customers”, Foyle said. “Some were very positive and very encouraging but others were concerned that we were going to do away with all the nooks and crannies and make it too modern. That was my initial concern.” However, he is pleased with the result, highlighting the “wonderful central atrium” that pours light into the whole building. “With what is going on in the print world, we don’t know where we will be in 10, 20, 30 years’ time,” Foyle said. “But I think the print book will be here to stay and sold in bricks and mortar shops and we want to be at the forefront of selling it.”

Foyle also said he wanted the company to have a larger market share of the print book business. “People are only going to visit us if they think it is worth it. So we have to make it worth their while,” he said. Foyle added that the company would encourage more people to visit by having the largest range of titles of any bookshop in the UK, and unparalleled customer service.

Hamilton agreed that the flagship store’s future lay in keeping customers on their toes. “The bookshop itself should not be a static space. We have got to move on with the customers and change as the customers change,” he said. Husain added that the new store was well-placed to reap the benefits of the completion of the current Crossrail  project in 2018. “It is an exciting time for us, it is a new era,” he said. “We hope it will ensure our survival for the next 111 years."