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Can Apple stores be public spaces?

The tech giant wants to be the new town square

A short walk directly north from the National Mall sits Washington, D.C.’s famed Carnegie Library. Opened in 1903, the District’s first central library is named for Gilded Age steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Just four years earlier, in a waiting room at the White House, Carnegie had a fortuitous encounter with a board member of the D.C. Library. On the spot, Carnegie—who, prior to his death in 1919, spent more than $1 billion in today’s money to build about 1,700 libraries across the U.S.—wrote out a $250,000 donation to be put toward yet another library, this one in the U.S. capital.

When the Carnegie Library opened, it was Washington, D.C.’s first racially integrated public building. Situated in its own small public area, Mount Vernon Square, the library was 63,000 square feet of Beaux Arts architecture in the thick of downtown. Over the decades the library collection of D.C. expanded to more than 500,000 books. But in the early 1970s, the Washington Public Library several blocks away took over the city’s bibliomaniac duties. Since then, the Carnegie Library building has sat mostly empty; the only tenant is the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., which took up offices inside in 1999.

Soon, when Apple opens its newest flagship store inside the Carnegie Library, that will change. Apple hasn’t announced exactly when the store will open, but the latest news, shared during a D.C. Council meeting last February, is that a winter 2018 opening is expected. The first $1 trillion publicly traded company in history will set up shop in the main library space; the Historical Society will shift its offices to other floors of the building.

While the building’s exterior is in the final throes of a restoration project—with the addition of, Apple has promised, only subtle company signage—most changes are actually happening inside. Apple declined an interview for this article, but a Washington Post article published in May 2017, shortly after Apple took out a 10-year lease on the Carnegie Library, explained some expected interior alterations, which include a tree-lined sales floor dubbed Genius Grove instead of the usual Genius Bar. Further changes include removing the laylights—the transparent panels that form part of the ceiling—from the library’s Great Hall to make room for a retail atrium and the installation of a huge video screen.

Apple also plans to make its new Carnegie Library location “a place to hold a slate of free, open-to-the-public concerts, art exhibitions, workshops for teachers, and coding classes for children,” wrote the Post. And all conveniently increasing foot traffic near that $1,000 iPhone X you might be inclined to purchase.

“It’s very much about the event experience they’re creating as opposed to just having open spaces,” says Greg O’Dell, president and CEO of Events D.C., the convention authority that manages the Carnegie Library and is now Apple’s landlord. “When Apple put forth this concept of a community space, a community forum and event space, that was appealing to us.”

The event calendar is one piece of the company’s new vision for its stores to act as de facto town squares. Leading this shift is Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s senior vice president of retail, who was hired away from British luxury fashion company Burberry in 2014.

Apple has already begun enacting this new vision: at the company’s Union Square store, opened in San Francisco in 2016 (the first such town-square store and the first to feature a Genius Grove); at Apple’s Brooklyn store (where the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA held a beat-making class); at Apple’s Chicago store, which opened last October on the Chicago River (and features an outdoor, stepped seating area that faces the river). In July, Apple opened its newest town-square creation in Milan, Italy, a store Ahrendts described in a press release as “no better expression of our vision for Apple stores serving as modern-day gathering places,” probably because the Milan store’s location is in a literal piazza in the center of the city.

These stores are just the opening salvos. “I’ll know we’ve done a really, really great job if the next generation, if Gen Z says, ‘Meet me at Apple,’” Ahrendts said in a CBS This Morning interview that aired in April 2017.

Like the Milan store, the Carnegie Library and its future Apple store sit on a square—one that is controlled by the city. “Apple will have some rights,” O’Dell says. “But all that is in the context of a public park. It will still be a public space where people can gather and use as a park.”

Today’s communal spaces have ballooned in digital vastness yet shrunk in physical size. Apple appears to be seeking a balance, a way to blend the virtual and the real by expanding what its stores are all about and connecting those stores to a larger American mythology of public space.

Such thinking seems alien today in an American shopping landscape of blown-out strips and chain-store supercenters where the main draw is bargain-basement prices—when that shopping takes place in a physical space at all. Yet in the late 1800s and through much of the 1900s, department stores and their successors, shopping malls, served as informal community squares.

“The urban, downtown department store, which was well established by the late 19th century, would look quite different from the department stores you see today,” says Vicki Howard, author of From Main Street to Mall: The Rise and Fall of the American Department Store and professor of history at University of Essex. “They served a much broader social function. What Apple’s trying to do is rebuild something that has been lost.”

Depending on one’s perspective, Apple is engaged in either a savvy throwback to a time when retail stores acted as community hubs or a cynical marketing ploy. “Only Apple’s ludicrous corporate vanity demands its building be a turn-of-the-century public treasure,” wrote Kriston Capps in CityLab just one month after Ahrendts appeared on CBS’s morning show.

Apple is positioning itself as more than just a retail location for its pricey technology. “Companies have a huge obligation right now, and the bigger the company, the bigger the obligation,” Ahrendts said during Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women conference in 2016. “We are thinking about what the community needs.”

But co-opting the term “town square” goes beyond providing more seating and free classes. Public squares are defining locations throughout American history, crucial not only for the civic functions they serve but also for the civic fabric they cultivate — not to mention the public access to space they provide. It’s hard to envision a tech company committed to profit being an equally committed steward of the commons, especially given the juxtaposition: a private company taking over what was traditionally a very public space. The Carnegie Library, by virtue of its being a public library, was conceived as a place of public gathering. Apparently, Apple wants the same thing.

Town squares are as American as apple pie. The concept of a civic center in the middle of urban life dates back to the early New England village green. The square is where people met and exchange happened. Even the very beginning of the war that would allow American colonists to break off from Great Britain and form their own nation took place on a town square: As lines of British soldiers closed on Lexington in April 1775 during their march from Boston to Concord, the minutemen who assembled to stymie their advance took their positions on Lexington Green.

“The progression really was from drill grounds or ceremonial places where troops were mustered. You started to see that morph into beautification efforts to make these cultivated spaces where people would gather,” says Mark Souther, director of the Center for Public History + Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University.

As Michael Kimmelman pointed out in the New York Review of Books in 2016, “Squares have defined urban living since the dawn of democracy, from which they are inseparable.” The agoras of ancient Athens, for example, weren’t just meeting places, but “physical expressions of civic order and life,” he wrote, that combined into one a multitude of needs and activities: religious life, politics, commerce, theater.

In the U.S., it was this idea of a public square that flourished. The very same idea informed the composition of the downtown department stores that began appearing in American cities and were fixtures in most urban environments by the turn of the 20th century.

“Department stores over many decades developed this home in people’s hearts,” Howard says. “They had community spaces inside them, and all types of services, services that were going beyond just apparel: tea rooms, hair salons, restaurants, child care facilities.”

After World War II, the services that had been part of the department store became part of the suburban shopping mall. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the architectural designs of Victor Gruen. An Austrian immigrant who fled the Nazis in 1938, Gruen was the originator of the American mall, as M. Jeffrey Hardwick, deputy director of the Division of Public Programs at the National Endowment for the Humanities, recounts in the biography Mall Maker.

Gruen came to the U.S. with a singular vision: to reimagine suburban life in America. When he designed his first shopping malls, Gruen was thinking back to the open public spaces of Vienna. He wanted to create the mall as the new town center.

“Early malls tried to replicate downtown spaces, even to the point of having things like day care,” says Souther. “Chapels, hardware stores, public events, groups had meetings there. … It was retail with the functions of the public realm.”

As the 20th century progressed, the rise of malls and chain stores in the suburbs spelled the end of the downtown department store as a central gathering space. Malls themselves became places of commercialization, more about the products sold by the stores and less about the experience of being there. With shopping now a mere click away thanks to such tech giants as Apple, many malls are victims of the brick-and-mortar “retail apocalypse.” About 1,100 malls soldier on, but one-quarter are in danger of closing within the next five years (even as more than three-quarters of shoppers continue to make purchases in person).

Of course, department stores and malls were never true public places in the sense of a traditional city square. “Shopping malls raised the question of whether it’s a public space or a private space or some hybrid of the two,” Souther says. “What happens if it’s privately owned but purports to be like a public space? Yet you can’t bring placards or form a picket line; you can’t do certain things in the atrium of the shopping mall.”

Occupying the role that department stores and malls once held is something sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls “third places.” Third places, as the Project for Public Spaces explains, are public spaces “on neutral ground where people can gather and interact while experiencing a sense of ease and belonging.” Oldenburg’s term didn’t enter the lexicon of placemaking until 1989, the year he published The Great Good Place, his book that lays out the argument that areas such as coffee shops, bars, hair salons, and bookstores are not only necessary, but central to communities.

Think of it as the communal water-cooler effect. These places are not just areas of interpersonal interaction, but spaces where we feel a shared sense of purpose. It’s the assumed familiarity of an online space like Twitter, only with the potential for actual face-to-face communication and, one hopes, fewer Nazi sympathizers.

Starbucks is probably the retailer that has made the most use of third-place language.

“The reason we constantly refer to it as the third place is because it’s not home, and it’s not work, but it’s this place where you go and you sit and you spend a great deal of your time,” says Reggie Borges, a senior manager in Starbucks’s global corporate communications. “We also think there’s a business case to be made for creating a welcoming environment.”

According to Oldenburg’s parameters, Starbucks would largely qualify. In an interview he gave in 2014, he defined the most important third places as “libraries, fellowship halls and churches, remodeled YMCAs, and coffee houses that are affordable to anyone.”

During her interview on CBS in 2017, Ahrendts even name-dropped America’s ubiquitous coffee shop: “Starbucks figured it out, you know—being a gathering place.”

There’s a business case for any company in opening a storefront, and Apple’s move into the Carnegie Library is no different.

But appropriating the Carnegie Library space for use as a store is one in a series of moves Apple has made in recent years—in London, in Paris, and in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal—to repurpose historic buildings into storefronts, all with an eye toward preserving the old charm. Business is at least presented as a subsidiary concern.

“We have a deep commitment to the cities we work in, and are aware of the importance that architecture plays in the community,” said Apple chief design officer Jonathan Ive upon the opening of Apple’s first town-square store, the one in downtown San Francisco across from Union Square Park, in 2016. “It all starts with the storefront—taking transparency to a whole new level—where the building blends the inside and the outside, breaking down barriers and making it more egalitarian and accessible.”

At Apple’s Union Square store, there’s a backyard complete with a 50-feet-high wall of green and free wireless internet. Its name? The forum. Which seems like a cheeky bit of wordplay until one remembers that the word has a historical antecedent with important context. The forum is to ancient Rome as the agora was to ancient Greece, a public square for a variety of concerns. Ahrendts has publicly stated that Apple will judge the success of its new stores not based on sales conversions, but on how many people show up and for how long.

“The original reason Apple retail was created was to enrich lives,” she said in an interview last year. “Did we enrich your life? Did you connect with other people in the community that maybe you didn’t know before?”

The unavoidable, lingering question undergirding Apple’s contention that its new stores are “more egalitarian and accessible” is who’s allowed inside, and what are people allowed to do?

Ahrendts felt comfortable name-checking Starbucks in April 2017, but exactly one year later Starbucks was trotting out a corporate mea culpa after two black men at a Starbucks shop in Philadelphia were arrested after asking to use the restroom and, when they were told no, occupying a table to wait on another friend. (The store manager called the police, and in May, the two men settled with the City of Philadelphia for $1 each.) In the aftermath, Borges said Starbucks formalized its Third Place Policy so that anyone is considered a customer—bathroom-eligible and all—even if they don’t make a purchase.

“Are they going to be open for every type of person who has the right to be in a town square?” wonders Phil Myrick, CEO of the nonprofit Project for Public Spaces, about Apple’s new stores. “Will that include people who have nowhere else to sleep? Will they welcome the kids who want to climb all over the furniture? The protestors looking for a place to march and demonstrate?”

The answer, more than likely, is no, but with a slight wrinkle. As O’Dell points out, the square upon which the Carnegie Library sits is a public space, “subject to all the applicable laws of the District. People can do whatever they are allowed to do in a public space.”

Placards inside Apple’s newest town-square store will probably be frowned upon (or photographed by the retailer). But nothing’s stopping a group of people from gathering in Mount Vernon Square on a Saturday afternoon to picket the price of the iPhone X. So it becomes a question of what Apple’s hoping to cultivate by rebranding its stores as town squares instead of just viewing them as purely retail fronts.

The terms—town square/public square, and public space/public place—are at once interchangeable and not. Perhaps the most salient difference is that a public square is inherently for the use of the public, who don’t need to have a valid reason why they’re hanging out so long as they’re not breaking the law. On the other hand, the department stores and malls that used to offer similar amenities as town squares are public spaces that are privately owned. We can lay civic claim to grand indoor spaces, but they’re probably not locations where someone can stage a demonstration against governmental malfeasance or host a meeting of their local book club.

“There’s never been a time or a place where the town square was synonymous with a retail operation,” Myrick says. “In the end it leaves sort of a bad taste in the mouth. We all know ultimately, don’t we, that Apple stores are not a town square.”

It’s up to Apple to prove differently, to be a retail space with functions of the public realm that are affordable and accessible, and to welcome the people who have no interest in buying an Apple product. As Steve Jobs said in May 2001, when he hosted a press event at the first-ever Apple store at Tysons Corner Center, a shopping mall not far from Washington, D.C., “Your job is to enrich people’s lives”—iPhone not included.

Andrew Zaleski, a journalist based near Washington, D.C., writes frequently about business, science, and technology.

Editor: Sara Polsky


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