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Taschen makes its mark with high-end bookstores

The German publisher, which sells large-scale art books costing in the thousands, expands its retail presence during a down economy.

August 02, 2010|By Liesl Bradner, Special to the Los Angeles Times

When you walk into the Taschen bookstore in Beverly Hills, it feels as if you are entering the lavish private library of an art scholar. Illuminated shelves are lined with stunning and elaborate volumes on artists, architects, photographers and designers. The Philippe Starck-designed interior and ceilings adorned with commissioned murals create a contemporary yet elegant ambience.

The Beverly Drive location is just one of several of the German publisher's retail stores, the majority having opened during a time when more than a dozen independently owned bookstores have closed in Southern California. On the surface, it would seem an almost absurd notion to build high-end bookstores selling sleek, large-scale art books with price tags in the thousands during unstable economic conditions.

Taschen bookstores: An article in Monday's Calendar about Taschen bookstores referred in a second mention to its Grove store. As the article stated previously, the store is actually near the Grove, at the Original Farmers Market. —

Yet as the company celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, it continues to expand its high-end retail space, including a store near the Grove that opened in 2008 and, most recently, a store in Miami. Financial figures for the privately held company are not public, but the firm's executives are upbeat and Rob Hudson, manager of the Beverly Hills and Grove stores, says sales are up from last year by double digits.

The retail operation gives Taschen more control over the display of its massive collection of art books — roughly 100 new titles a year, as varied as "The Bible in Pictures" and risqué erotic arts, including the recently released "The Big Butt Book." "It was an opportunity to show the full range of the Taschen program and put it in a setting where people feel comfortable and not pressured to buy," said publisher and founder Benedikt Taschen at his North American headquarters in Hollywood.

Monobrand bookstores are a relatively new concept in the art book publishing world with some competitors emulating Taschen's business model. French publisher Assouline recently opened a West Hollywood location inside Bastide restaurant and another at the posh CityCenter in Las Vegas. London-based publisher Phaidon has retail stores in New York and the United Kingdom.

"Opening a bookstore that sells your own books cuts out the middleman and saves money," said Lee Kaplan, owner of Arcana: Books on the Arts in Santa Monica, which sells Taschen books. He doesn't believe their stores are profitable ventures by themselves. "I'd be surprised if the stores could thrive without the support of the publishing empire."

Taschen's origins trace to 1980, when the 18-year-old comic book collector sold his wares from a tiny storefront in Cologne, Germany (where the firm is still headquartered), evolving into the publishing of art books beginning with Picasso. Although he may mingle with the Hollywood elite, Benedikt Taschen is a rather reserved, behind-the-scenes type of publisher.

"He's tapped into a small niche sector that no one else is serving,"said Albert Greco, professor of marketing at Fordham University in New York. "He either has an unlimited checking account or he's doing business."

Greco added: "He had no choice but to open these stores; other retailers could not have carried his books and made a profit."

The publisher's Paris store, which opened in 2000, created a blueprint for future stores. "We opened bookstores in areas where there was already an office, a built-in infrastructure," said Taschen of his stores that are positioned in dynamic art communities. He plans to open more international stores, including in Mexico City.

The champagne will frequently flow for a book launch such as Hugh Hefner's star-studded event last December at the Beverly Hills store. "Hugh Hefner's Playboy," a 50-pound, six-volume collection chronicling the first 25 years of Playboy, includes a square of fabric from Hef's pajamas in each of the 1,500 limited-edition copies housed in a plexiglass box. Retail: $1,300.

This type of innovative packaging is status quo for Taschen's XXL format books, which originated in 1999 with "SUMO," a tribute to fashion photographer Helmut Newton. The 460-page tome weighed 66 pounds and came with its own designer table. Much to the dismay of the owners of these limited editions, Taschen recently introduced scaled-down, "nice price" versions.

"I think a lot of wealthy people don't know where to put their money these days with the real estate and stock markets so shaky," said Hudson of customers purchasing limited-edition books as an investment.

A limited-edition "SUMO," which originally sold for $1,500 in 1999, can be found today on EBay for $14,000.

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