There’s a reason why a lot of interior designers call on old books to bring charm to new rooms. A job lot of Penguin Classics haphazardly arranged on a factory-weathered shelf can single-handedly convince a pub’s clientele that the Sunday roast really is worth £8 more than it should be. Being surrounded by books is comforting, cocooned in all that dusty old wisdom and buoyed by the idea that, if you wanted to, you could just come into this establishment, pluck a book down and sit there casually reading until dinner time.
Except, of course, you usually don’t. The books tend to be there for decoration. Some places even glue theirs down. Luckily, The Standard, London has provided a reading experience quite unlike any other for their customers to enjoy. A meticulously-curated library of the kinds of books that have potentially been overlooked for decades: meters and meters of obscure non-fiction, text and reference books from the 1970s and 1980s, arranged in the style of an educational library to encourage you to get stuck in.
In 28 different sections labelled with topics such as “Hope” or “Pets” or “Chaos” or “Mathematics” you’ll find some of the most curious publications you’ve ever set eyes upon. There are charming surprises around every corner. In “Chaos” you’ll find books such as “Salads” or “The Stansted Experience” Or “Sybil: The True Story of a Woman Possessed by 16 Different Personalities.” Elsewhere, the “Sound” section offers a fantastic collection of books on musical instruments, hearing, audio engineering and sonic discovery, while the “Adult Relationships” section offers instructional titles alongside more thoughtful selections such as “Basic Moral Concepts.” The “Hobbies” section offers a book simply titled, “Drinking Wine”.
The mastermind behind this completely beguiling, deliciously witty library is Carrie Maclennan, an artist, design curator and two-time shop owner hailing from Glasgow but now set up in east London. Toward the tail end of a decade-long stint in spirit-killing marketing work, Carrie met with Dennis Askins, the then Director of Design for the hotel. “We had this really fun but peculiar discussion. I knew I wanted to do something with The Standard. He knew that he wanted me to do something with The Standard - but neither of us quite knew what that thing was,” Carrie recalls. “Then the topic of the library came up… The dream project!”
“I’ll talk to you in 4 months when I’ve made a library.”
The somewhat legendary interior designer of The Standard London, Shawn Hausman, was keen to nod to the building’s history as the Camden Town Hall Annexe, the ground floor of which was once a public library. Hausman’s team and the team at The Standard scripted a narrative to inspire Carrie and inform the design of the entire floor of the hotel. In this fictional tale, the town hall and library are abandoned and then taken over by friendly art students, squatters and DIY folk. “I got to thinking, ‘If artist squatters lived in the library, what might happen to the space or IN the space as a result of that?’” That’s where Carrie picked up the story. “I said, ‘Right, okay, I know what I need to know now,’” she recalls. “I’ll talk to you in 4 months when I’ve made a library.”
The first step was to come up with the sections, or “topics” for the non-fiction books to reside in. “I felt I had to start with conventional topics that people would immediately relate with public library learning,” says Carrie. “Philosophy, Psychology, Sociology and Science were the first to be agreed.” Later came the more obscure, genres such as “Chaos” and “Order” – picked from a list of over 300 ideas. Broader topics like “Romance,” “Politics,” and “Hobbies” came next. With 28 topics decided on and a head spinning with ideas, Carrie began collecting books. She spent hours upon hours scrolling through titles in secondhand bookstores online and trawling the shelves of local London bookshops. “Over half the books came from our neighbours at Skoob Books; from their shop, store room and warehouse. The team there have been flippin’ wonderful,” Carrie says. “The booksellers on Charing Cross Road and in Judd Books round the corner must think of me as the crazy book lady.” Only one was bought from Amazon – a budget-pushing book about Shawn Hausman’s old nightclub Area – which is so rare it only comes on display at the library on special occasions.
After a few months, when Carrie had gathered the 3000 books she needed, she set up camp in an empty room in the unfinished floor of the hotel to clean them (a laborious process involving cleansing wipes that led to her developing an RSI), un-sticker, re-sticker and stamp them before sorting them into their topics: a job that really could only have been done by her. Carrie worked alongside a paper recreation of the shelving and subject categories, and a plan began coming together before her eyes. “Categories are very specifically positioned in relation to one another. It’s no accident that Environmental Science sits next to Despair. Romance sits next to Technology in a nod to the nature of modern dating. Politics sits next to Tragedy – where Tragedy is actually just more books about politics.” Carrie encountered some unexpected challenges along the way. “I started to realise that some of the category combinations that I had been working with on paper actually behaved very differently in real life,” she recalls. “For instance, there was a section of the room where a guest would be flanked by “Darkness”, “Hope”, “Politics” and “Tragedy”. I couldn’t help but think, ‘Oh the poor person who’s gonna have to sit on this couch!’ I had to rethink the floor plan to make sure the balance was fun for the guest but without diluting the overall narrative”.
The hotel opened, the multi-colored books of Carrie’s intricate, fascinating library on display to the public who delighted in browsing the bonkers tomes from a bygone era. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the books started to disappear. Whole chunks of the romance section would be stolen overnight. Customers – many fuelled by cocktails – began slipping publications from Carrie’s library into their bags when they wrongly thought no one was watching. Carrie is quite touched by the theft, really, and enjoys the idea of these cleaned-up old books starting a new chapter elsewhere. “There’s something kind of brilliant about the books taking on a new phase of life after all the time they’ve spent abandoned in various dusty basements. Some of them haven’t been touched in decades. I’ve taken them, labelled them, stamped them, given them a slightly new context and identity, and put them in this incredible building with loads of amazing things happening around them,” Carrie shrugs. “And honestly, I quite like the idea of someone getting pissed, taking a book, and then finding it at home the next day. They’ll call their friend and ask, ‘Um… Why have I got a book about goat keeping in my handbag?’”
“I quite like that those books are back on shelves, but are being viewed in a very different kind of way.”
This is the magic of Carrie’s library. For her, it wasn’t a case of doing what so many establishments do and order 60 meters of random old books from a distributor and shove them on the shelves. The Standard, London library books are the opposite of books-for-books-sake. They were each chosen with love and given a carefully chosen home. It’s the unique personality of the books she loves: what the content of each book reveals about the way mankind used to live, the photography and typography and most importantly the books being reborn into an exciting new space in the heart of London. “There’s a story that runs through these shelves,” says Carrie. “I love that the books are back on display, but are being viewed in a very different kind of way.”