Where Books Are Treated Like Works of Art

The first sight to greet those exiting the recent must-see show of Anish Kapoor's work at London's Royal Academy was a large poster promoting "the most comprehensive monograph on the celebrated sculptor." This was not a Royal Academy ploy to separate art lovers from their money; rather it was an enticement to enter the stand-alone Phaidon bookstore across Piccadilly, one of four pop-up shops the publisher has opened in recent months, including in New York's SoHo neighborhood.

Founded in Austria in the 1920s, Phaidon moved to England to avoid the Anschluss at about the same time it started to publish large-format art books. Seven decades later it is one of a number of art-book publishers that are borrowing the retail tactics of the luxury-goods trade and opening high-end monobrand stores. That may seem counterintuitive at a time when independent bookshops are closing and big chains are hawking bestsellers. But inspired by an "explosion of interest" in art books, Phaidon CEO Richard Schlagman has decided to use the downturn to try to sell directly to customers and control the retail experience. "It was not something that we were desperately keen to do, but we are enjoying it," he says. "We are getting very good reactions and people are enjoying seeing the whole collection together; we do a lot to make our books very desirable, and a lot of that is lost with chain-store groups."

Schlagman is experiencing the power of brand loyalty, and the desirability that he has identified is key to understanding this microtrend in book buying. The 21st century has not been kind to the written word; the Internet allows anyone with a computer and an opinion to become a "writer," and books are sold heavily discounted online and in supermarket checkouts. But publishers of large-format, illustrated literature—once pejoratively dismissed as coffee-table books—have found that they are creating luxury products.

One of the most adept manipula-tors of this repositioning is Benedikt Taschen, whose eponymous imprint has become synonymous with glam-orous, often erotic, high-end books. Taschen has created an impressive mystique about his brand, offering limited editions and innovative packaging. You have to salute a man who can attach a cultural payload to a six-volume survey of the Playboy oeuvre, limited to 1,500 numbered copies signed by Hugh Hefner and sold with a complete facsimile of the first-ever edition, in-cluding nude photographs of Marilyn Monroe, and a piece of Hef's pajamas (laundered, we hope)—all presented in a centimeter-thick Plexiglas case, making this not so much a coffee-table book as a coffee table itself. But while the "sex" books may be among Taschen's best-known products, his stand-alone stores allow him to set them in the context of his other highbrow titles, which include a series of posthumous Norman Mailer books. The first, MoonFire, is about the moon landings, and I am looking forward to the forthcoming tome on America.

Of course, the prototypical Taschen product was his Helmut Newton Sumo book, a stroke of genius that presented Newton's saucy aesthetic in unwieldy size, which came with a Philippe Starck–designed collapsible stand. Starck is among the celebrated artists and designers who have collaborated with him on his stand-alone stores, spaces designed to appeal to the company's loyal client base. "Our stores make only a few percent of our sales"—less than 5 percent, Taschen estimates—"but we are certainly planning to open new ones." The next important opening will be in the spring in the Herzog & de Meuron building on Miami's Lincoln Road.

Miami is an important place for this kind of publisher to have a serious presence, as it is home to the sprawling mega-event that is Art Basel Miami Beach. And publishers are increasingly taking stands at art fairs to boost awareness among their core demographic. Indeed, it is this increasing perception of large, lavish books as works of art that their publishers are keen to nurture. For instance, Steidl has collaborated with pop artist Ed Ruscha to bring out a scrapbook of the fashion photographer Sante D'Orazio's work from the years 1997 to 2008, in a special edition of 350 copies retailing at $10,000 apiece. "The notion of digital editions being the end of books or death of ink has reinforced the nature of the kind of book that we make," says Steidl's managing director, Michael Mack. "They are not ephemeral: the paper, the binding, the finish…that craft element of real ink is actually the attraction and the biggest selling point of our books." Mack has broadened his reach beyond the art world, even arranging for Hermès to stock Steidl books.

Steidl is not alone in seeing the value of connecting to established luxury brands. "Our first shop was in Paris, on Place Saint-Germain between Vuitton and Dior," says Prosper Assouline, who together with his wife created an imprint that publishes a range of style, art, and history books (including some of my own). "It is very warm like an apartment, and you have some couches, beautiful music, beautiful smells; you want to stay. It is an experience." Over the past few years he has built an innovative retail network, opening stores and shops-in-shops in locations as diverse as New York's Plaza Hotel and Sotheby's auction house, as well as in department stores like Saks, Bloomingdale's, and soon Harvey Nichols. The idea is to showcase a life of European savoir-faire, of which a good library is only a component. He describes his latest opening in Los Angeles more as a club than a bookshop: "It is a store as a showroom, something very private, with an Assouline café-restaurant."

By contrast, Assouline's next store to open, a 200-square-meter flagship "between Cartier and Van Cleef," will be located in a city hitherto unknown for its literary culture: Las Vegas. It will be part of a new multibillion-dollar resort, retail, and residential complex, and far from clubby. Assouline is betting that the owners of the many new apartments above the shopping and leisure facilities will treat his new store—with its specially designed sofas, stylish décor, custom library service, and vintage corner—as a furniture and decorative-items supplier, as well as a bookshop. "If you want to build a kitchen you go to Bulthaup; for the bedroom it is Frette; and if you want to create a library you go to Assouline," he says. Assouline's soothing French accent and persuasive manner combine to make that logic seem as natural as night following day. What next? A high-end, publishing-themed casino complex?