Selgas Cano’s Librería bookshop aims to engage both mind and body


Iwan Baan

Now that anyone can join a video conference call, buy cornflakes or publish a novel from the smartphone in their pocket, the boldest predictions made 20 years ago by digital futurists seem to have been vindicated. The network will make location irrelevant, they said, and anything that can be digitised will be distributed in the form of bits, not atoms.


But the technology industry itself provides evidence of the continued appeal of place, proximity and physical experience. London’s digital start-ups cluster in ‘Tech City’ near the Old Street roundabout, within shouting distance of potential collaborators or rivals. And a new bookshop, established to provide Tech City’s digital natives with a “sanctuary away from the bombardment of modern life”, suggests that rumours of the death of print remain exaggerated.

The back wall of the small shop is mirrored to double its apparent depth, perceptually extending the shelves lining the walls towards a distant vanishing point”

Librería is the brainchild of Sam Aldenton and Rohan Silva, founders of Second Home, a shared workspace for digital businesses which faces the shop across Hanbury Street. To launch an analogue business in the heartland of the digital sector might seem counterintuitive, but “across industries we are seeing a return to physical things and a fresh appreciation of craftsmanship”, says Silva. “These things are not being killed by the digital; they are being given new life.”


For the shop’s design Aldenton and Silva returned to Selgas Cano, the Spanish practice responsible for Second Home. It has brought a wealth of ideas and references, including Jorge Luis Borges’ story ‘The Library of Babel’, describing an apparently limitless book repository in which mirrors “feign and promise infinity”. Here, the back wall of the small shop is mirrored to double its apparent depth, perceptually extending the shelves lining the walls towards a distant vanishing point. The dark ceiling formed of stretched lightweight plastic is also reflective, and ripples in the breeze when the door is ajar.

The central display unit encloses stairs to the basement. Mounted on castors, it can be moved to one side of the room, and with the opening to the basement temporarily covered, the 83-square-metre shop can double as a venue for events, accommodating a small seated audience or a larger standing crowd.

The shelves form a continuous asymmetric, angular lining to the long walls. Inspired by the rough-and-ready furniture that builders knock up for their own use on site, they are constructed from yellow shuttering ply, prominently stamped with the red logo of the manufacturer. Their construction is deliberately crude (“we wanted to do it without detail”, says architect José Selgas) in the hope that the imperfections will enhance visitors’ awareness of being in a real physical space. Though Selgas’ plan to employ Spanish labourers – “the guys with hard hands” – as joiners proved impractical, a local handyman with the necessary lack of expertise in carpentry was found instead.


The presentation of stock offers an alternative to algorithmically-generated suggestions. In place of generic categories such as ‘Travel’ or ‘Fiction’, titles are grouped thematically – ‘Mothers, Madonnas & Whores’; ‘Terror’ – to encourage serendipitious discovery.

Vintage furniture and lamps clipped to shelves further add to the carefully calculated impression of artless eclecticism. Additional sensory stimulation comes from a turntable and small whisky bar clipped to shelves, and the smell of ink from a Risograph printer in the basement. It offers strong competition to the sterile convenience of online shopping and ebooks: as manager Sally Davies notes, “We are embodied creatures, after all”.

Additional Images


Selgas Cano
Alejandro Cano, Doctor Cato
Second Home

Stretched fabric ceiling
Shuttering timber