“Scott showed up with a few boxes one day,” says Justyna Chrupek of the day she found out about the project that would take over her life for the next 18 months. Her assignment: Gather 3,500–4,500 books for a new hotel. Scott Greenberg, her boss, is the CEO of SMASHotels and behind the science-inspired Hotel EMC2, which opened in Chicago last May, and its New American restaurant, the Albert, named after you-know-who. “In my head, this was a simple, easy project,” says Chrupek, Greenberg’s executive assistant. “I had no idea.”
The straight-forward assignment of gathering old science and math books took on a life of its own, turning into a massive project and tallying up 12,000 books. The Albert, helmed by chef Brandon Brumback (previously of Grace and Blackbird), has shelves 40 feet high in the air stuffed with old algebra texts more visually stunning than the glossy collection of copper pots hanging just below.
The Albert isn’t the only new restaurant opening up with its very own library either. The Voltaggio Brothers Steak House in Oxon Hill, Maryland has 120 linear feet of modern classics, gathered by architectural firm Design Bureaux with bulk seller Books by Foot, along with other decorative knickknacks, like seashells and figurine book stops, to create the look of a study. In their library bar, there are tufted wingback chairs, where you can crack open John Grisham’s The Firm or the trivia set Schott’s Original Miscellany while waiting to order your 45-day dry-aged steak and oysters Rockefeller with smoked shoyu. And New York City’s cocktail bar Library of Distilled Spirits is dedicated in both name and form to the books with 300 cocktail and beverage texts decorating a 16-by-20-foot wall. Beverage director Kyle Tran, a vet of Chicago’s The Aviary, serves more than 1,000 different spirits, all catalogued in a house encyclopedia over several volumes, which are nestled in between those old cocktail and whiskey books.
There are even booksellers whose specialty is building out collections for restaurants, bars, and hotels. Thatcher Wine of Juniper Books in Boulder, Colorado has earned a national reputation doing so. He’s worked on projects for The Tennessean Hotel in Knoxville, The Four Seasons Al Maryah Island in Abu Dhabi, and Wolfgang Puck’s Cut in New York, which features futuristic all-white books set off by squiggly neon pink lights. His most famous project is the NoMad Library Bar for Will Guidara and Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park in New York. It has seven bays of books lit to glow with their own themes: food and drink, New York, mind and spirit, France, and music. “The one requirement they put for the music section was to include books about The Rolling Stones,” says Wine. His own favorites include a 1910 Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, and Knickerbocker’s History of New York. It took him three months to build out the 3,500 collection for the space.
Back in Chicago, the Albert library took about 17 months—and almost every waking minute of Chrupek’s time—to complete. “We bought the books by the pound,” she says. “I got my entire family, my kids and my husband, involved [transporting the books]. I worked nights and weekends.” Originally, the idea started out as buying only science and math books, as a reference to Hotel EMC2’s theme of scientific understanding. But soon she and Greenberg figured out that they would need to expand their scope, adding art books, literature, and more.
Chrupek scoured small bookstores, art fests, and library sales non-stop. She worked with the Open Books Organization, a non-profit that sells donated books to raise funds for literacy, and they helped sort books for her. Greenberg and Chrupek set up a design “lab” for mocking up bookshelves and figuring out how they would look in the dining room and the rest of the hotel. “We tried to set up shelves with eye-catching titles,” says Chrupek. Forty versions of The Joy of Sex are mixed in the bookshelves along other titles, like an Introduction to Electrodynamics.
“There isn’t one person who hasn’t come into the restaurant and stopped and started pointing,” says Greenberg. “They start a conversation.”
“It’s a Harry Potter-ish variety,” he says. “From the first to second floor, it appears that the stairs are built out of bookshelves. As you travel up the stairs, you’re walking inside columns of bookshelves that seem to be floating in the air.” With more and more reading done on soul-sucking glaring screens or social media scrolls, little collective memory to speak of, old books, do indeed, seem like magic.