March 22, 2018

Repurposing Retail | Library by Design, Spring 2013

From big-box store to strip mall outlet locations, libraries are finding success in a storefront world

The trend toward putting public libraries in retail spaces such as big-box stores, malls, strip centers, and main street buildings shows no sign of slowing. The McAllen Public Library, TX, main library, which opened in late 2011 in a former Wal-Mart, garnered many awards, including the coveted American Institute of Architects (AIA) Honor Award for Interior Architecture. McAllen residents got a lot of library compared with what they would have gotten building new, reduced their impact on the environment, and turned a blight into a flourishing center of community life.

Retail locations work, according to Leanne Larson, MS&R’s lead interior designer on the McAllen project, because they are likely to offer “a desirable location, easy access, ample parking, clear vision of the front door, and… [a] floor plate [that is] wide open, which makes it easier to reconfigure into the library program.”

David Schnee,  AIA, principal, Group 4 Architecture and architect for the Otay Ranch Branch, CA (see next page), notes, “The decision to go retail is often made because a community can’t afford a stand-alone library.” If viewed as a “starter” library, retail locations are sometimes looked down upon. But Schnee thinks the idea of an “express library” is an important offering within a community’s portfolio of library services. Located in high-traffic areas, they operate with few staff and a focused set of services.

Alan Barocas, senior vice president of mall leasing, General Growth Properties, says libraries can help retail centers become more effective one-stop shopping experiences. They attract customers who make repeat visits, promote how we educate our kids, and further the concept of family shopping where there’s something for everyone. Plus, he adds, the library benefits from a venue with instant traffic.

The projects below show how retail locations can make the most of these retail-space benefits:

  1. They stretch tight budgets through repurposing existing spaces
  2. They invigorate retail environments in a quadruple win for customers, communities, retailers, and libraries
  3. They take advantage of the steady stream of traffic to expose many people to the library experience.


Palisade Branch

When the ten-year, $1 per year lease on the library’s city-owned space expired, the future of Mesa County Libraries’ (MCL) Palisade Branch (above) was most uncertain. Renting wasn’t attractive. “Even if we got a screaming deal,” comments the library’s director, Eve Tallman, “you’re looking at ten years of rent when we could have purchased a building for the same price.”

Word spread quickly that MCL was looking to purchase a property. One owner offered his main street building housing an art gallery, jewelry shop, and architect’s office. About 70 years old, it featured wood floors, big windows, and a patio. The library district, which has plenty of experience locating libraries in retail spaces, deemed this one a perfect site, and a deal was struck to purchase the building for $395,000. That was mid-2011, and by the fall the new branch was open for business.

Alchemy of an old retail space

Despite the charm and location of this older building, some basic renovations were required. Not only did the building’s mysterious wiring present challenges, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)–compliant restrooms had to be created, automatic doors installed, new carpet and linoleum laid, furnishings procured, and some walls removed and others painted—all on a very modest budget of $45,000.

Professional design services and engineering were used only for the most basic requirements, e.g., ADA restroom design. There was, says Tallman, “very little creative ­architecture.”

The 4,100 square foot Palisade Branch encompasses one big room, two meeting rooms, a library auxiliary bookstore, and a shaded outdoor space.

Prescription for main street ills

The entities displaced by the library relocated into three vacant downtown Palisade spaces to create what Tallman calls “our own little urban renewal project.”

The art gallery–turned–library is now the town hot spot. The covered patio and picnic table are a gathering space for caffeine lovers. Library walls exhibit works by local artists purchased by the library’s auxiliary. Even the Lions Club meets at the library.

One year later, the win-win is apparent. The library reported increases in checkouts, visits, and new library cards, while Palisade’s businesses reported increased sales in the year following the library opening.

Many ways to score a retail space

It wasn’t the first time MCL created a library in a retail space. Its Orchard Mesa Branch was sited in a new, empty strip mall. As the anchor “store,” it received a free rent period before paying $4,000 a month. Following a $150,000 build out, circulation rose 1,000 percent from its previous location in a middle school. The downside? “We don’t own it,” says Tallman, “and you never know whom your neighbors will be.”

Tallman is presently immersed in a double dose of retail therapy. MCL’s headquarters library, a 1950s Grand Junction downtown grocery store that was turned into a library in 1973, is being given new life as a 21st-­century library by Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture. By not scrapping the building, savings are estimated at between $10 million and $15 million, according to Tallman.

Meanwhile, patrons aren’t complaining about the headquarter’s temporary digs—a former furniture store—owing to ample reading nooks and plenty of display space.

Tallman says it’s easier to create a library from an empty box store than an old building like Palisade’s. “Libraries can form up spaces using ceiling my butts, carpet treatment, lighting, stack arrangements, or ceiling treatments.” Palisade, she adds, has too many exterior doors and un­attractive exposed conduit necessitated by concrete block walls. “New retail spaces, assuming they are rectangles, are much easier.”


Otay Ranch Branch

Just before the library put shovels in the dirt, plans fell apart for Chula Vista’s new 30,000 square foot library to serve the city’s rapidly growing east side. That was in 2007. Since then the library has walked what its director, Betty Wasnis, calls “a long and winding road” to its new, re­scaled, but decidedly upscale digs in the Otay Ranch Town Center.

Picture this: a rapidly growing city of a quarter of a million people meets the economic crash head on. The library is forced to reduce its staff from 70 to 21 FTE, and plans for the new library are put on hold. Over 100,000 residents in the newest area of town are left with partial library services, located deep within a high school and accessible only after 3:30 p.m.

Community members formed a library foundation and began fundraising. Library leaders pursued endless ideas for providing adequate services. As businesses failed and the amount of empty retail space increased, that plan for the big new library, with its large debt service, began to recede. A new idea, sparked by the retail decline, took hold.

Doing business with a corporation

Unfortunately, that new idea received a cool reception when library officials first approached the Otay Ranch Town Center to inquire about a space. Owned by a REIT (real estate investment trust), this high-end lifestyle shopping center was the nicest in the area, with many amenities. Built in a growth area that stopped growing, it had many empty storefronts. Shopping center officials generously offered a low-cost space but in an undesirable location. Library officials turned it down.

Six months later, Wasnis got a call to meet the mall manager in the open-air food court. This time, the manager offered a vacant pizza parlor and two other adjacent spaces for the library’s use.

After months of negotiation, working through the complexities of corporate and city processes, a lease was crafted. The terms—$1 a year plus utilities for three years, with a two-year extension—required the library to be open at least five days a week.

Make the most of retail opportunities

By redirecting $200,000 from RFID conversion and $50,000 from the foundation, the library hired Group 4 Architecture, Research + Planning, to design a library that would be flexible, welcoming to library neophytes, comfortable, and matched to the high-end feel of the shopping complex.

The library opened in spring 2012. Its high-impact location, coupled with vibrant interiors that spill out onto the food court, garners heavy foot traffic. Parents and kids stop by for a program or materials after shopping. Tagalong spouses make a beeline for the library while their mates shop. Shoppers check their email or download a book while relaxing in the food court. No one goes home empty-handed.

Wheeled stacks, pegboard walls, and excellent sight lines provide flexibility. By matching the mall aesthetics, placing plenty of furniture outside, and offering Wi-Fi to the food court area and beyond, the space draws people in who might not otherwise visit a stand-alone library.

Benefits of the mall location are numerous. Custodial, security, and public relations services are provided by the mall. Partnerships with other tenants, i.e., the Apple Store and Barnes & Noble, provide help with ebook downloading to visitors.

Plan B presents possibilities

Though Otay Ranch’s 3,412 square foot space is small, its constant foot traffic, frequent school district trips, and a story time that takes over the whole library creates a lively atmosphere. And while it’s Plan B, Otay Ranch Branch offers a world of possibilities.

“So many people walk in and see the library who might not come into a library,” Wasnis comments. And while there isn’t the permanence of an owned building, she’s already acting like a retailer—lobbying for a toy store to locate next door.


Ladd Library

No one believed it could be done. After losing its Central Library to the 2009 flood, the Cedar Rapids Public Library (CRPL) sought not only to rebuild it but also to add a substantial branch to the rapidly growing west side of the city. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds were barely enough to rebuild Central, but the library doggedly persisted with its vision for the branch.

The library opted for the lower up-front cost of retail space and leased 21,000 square feet of a largely empty 120,000 square foot retail box. Formerly a Target, it was bought by the owner to flip, but it sat unsold. The lease costs the library $90,000 annually, much less than the going rate. The five-year lease can be renewed at the same rate and permits the library to walk away if funding is cut.

The turnkey cost of renovation was $2.1 million. To save money and ensure brand continuity, the library piggy­backed on the furniture, flooring, and lighting packages for the new Central Library that’s set to open in August. Private funds, including a surprise legacy gift, paid the tab.

Anchoring for the future

OPN Architects, hired for both the Ladd Library and the new Central Library, rethought the space to bring in natural light and emphasize the dramatic ceiling heights. Windows cut into the concrete block walls capture large expanses of natural light. Columns every 30 feet offer opportunity for data and power. Excellent sight lines mean the space can be operated with just 5.5 customer service staff members. A drive-up lane and window, along with a materials handling system, are welcome additions and relatively easy to achieve.

Ladd Library features a popular collection, plain-­language stack signage, lots of media, and retail-like face-out displays. New ideas introduced at Ladd, like a media dispenser in a 24-7 vestibule, iPad catalog stations, and curvi­linear shelving, serve as a test bed for the opening of the Central Library.

With the library having opened in February, it’s too soon for Bob Pasicznyuk, library director since 2009, to tell the story of what works and what doesn’t, but patrons immediately voted with their feet. With about 5,000 people at the opening and a continual stampede of new traffic, the library is overrun with requests for new library cards. And while some parents would rather see a separate children’s area, it hasn’t stopped swarms of youth and adults, with friends in tow, from flocking to the branch, with visits that sometimes last all day.

Now that the library is in and drawing foot traffic, a pizza chain has opened up, and several major prospective tenants are rumored to be interested. Doing double duty, Ladd Library has become an anchor to the Cedar Rapids’ west side community and to a retail complex that has a better future ahead.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Louise Schaper About Louise Schaper

Louise Schaper (, retired Executive Director of Fayetteville Public Library, AR, is a Library Consultant and LJ's New Landmark Libraries project lead.

The Latest Trends in Library Design
Hosted in partnership with Salt Lake County Library and The City Library—at SLCo’s Viridian Center—the newest installment of our library building and design event will let you dig deep with architects, librarians, and vendors to explore building, renovating, and retrofitting spaces to better engage your community.
Building Literacy-Rich Communities
Hosted by Library Journal and School Library Journal, Stronger Together is a national gathering of thought leaders and innovators from across the country who will share where and how partnerships between school districts and public libraries are having success. Join us May 10–12 at the University of Nebraska Omaha, as we explore the impact these collaborations are having on the institutions, communities, and kids they serve.


  1. Our public library, the Washington Public Library, opened in its new space on the southside of downtown Washington, IA’s square about 4 years ago. We took over what used to be a department store but had been rented space for some time. Most department stores in rural Iowa towns have relocated to malls in bigger cities, and towns struggle with what to do with the space. Having our library located downtown is both a boon to the retail stores downtown, as it has increased foot traffic downtown, and a boon to the library in that we can partner much more easily with organizations and events downtown. It’s been win-win for us!

    • Debbie– sounds like a great solution and all around win for your community. What challenges and opportunities did you face during your design and conversion processes?

  2. Good tips on securing retail space

  3. Not to mention the Newport Branch of the Youngstown and Mahoning County Public Library.