It was a multi-cultural waiting line for the grand opening of the Covent Garden (London) retail store, as people from many countries braved an overnight rain to visit the store and buy iPhones. Visitors from Turkey, Russia, Scotland, Germany, United States, the UK and other countries formed up at 10 a.m. Friday for the opening of Apple’s largest and most expensive store, which provided all sorts of surprises when they walked inside. The central courtyard under a huge skylight provided a place to begin their exploration of the retail space, which is divided into several separate areas over three levels. The various spaces are visually tied together by clever use of arched windows, which allow a view from one level to another, and from one space to another. The interior rooms, which might have been dark, are illuminated by skylights, windows and from the sun-lit courtyard. There is no other Apple like it, and it demonstrates how the challenges of building within an historic structure can be solved with thoughtful architecture.
Rose was the first person to arrive just before 10 a.m. She’s a former Specialist/Concierge at an Apple store back in the United States, and now studying in London for her MBA. She was greeted by many of the Apple employees during the day, and tried not to gaze into the store so she wouldn’t ruin her eventual first-entry. Rose was joined by her friend Mer, and eventually by a growing line of people who traveled to London for the opening, or just happened to be in town and who wanted to share in the excitement. A large number of people were from other countries and who wanted to buy an iPhone to take back home. Several people from Russia, including a member of the Bolshoi Ballet orchestra on tour in London, a group from Turkey, and many from from Asia were in line to buy an unlocked iPhone.
During the day the line waited as thousands of passersby stared in wonder—Why are you waiting here, they wondered. The sun was generally behind the clouds all day, but when the sun went down, the temperature stayed mild. There were lots of iPads in the line, along with a few laptops and many iPhones.
The line made friends with some of the street magicians who work around Covent Garden. Street magician Sergio Barros came by to give the waiting line a short show of his close-up card tricks. Apple employees also came by frequently to say hello and make sure those in line were okay. About 5 p.m. the traditional friends-and-family reception was held inside the Apple store, with employees proudly giving tours of their new workplace.
The arcade in front of the store was blocked off with stanchions, but passersby frequently ignored them to wander towards the front doors. Security guards politely moved them back beyond the archways. Many passersby took photos of the store and asked questions of the waiting lines, including whether the iPhone 4 would be available.
After sundown, the gaslights suspended between the arches came on. But they were hardly noticeable, since their glow is very dim and soft.
Covent Garden foot traffic changed as the evening wore on, with fewer tourists and more locals, and casual attire chaning to more Friday-night party apparel.
About midnight Apple’s security head Simon came by to explain the line arrangements. Shortly after, the line was moved to a temporary area beyond James Street, with the security team carefully maintaining the order of the line. Workers then erected bicycle barriers in front of the store, and by 1:30 a.m. we were moved back into final position, just in front of the building and outside the arcade.
Workers inside and outside the store cleaned the windows, the interior floor and the outside entrance. A second set of workers broke out drills and other equipment to work on the entrance door latching hardware.
About 3:30 a.m. the rain began, and a security guard immediately radioed, “It’s raining.” Within 30 seconds an blue-shirted Apple employee came out with large black umbrellas for the waiting line.
The waiting line formed up slowly, with only 21 in the official, pre-midnight line. A few people arrived in the early hours, but more began to enter the line beginning at 5 a.m. By 9 a.m., the line had extended past first set of barricades, and into another line east of James Street. The line curved around the plaza to the east end of the Coven Garden market building, and probably totaled 500 by the time the store opened at 10 a.m.
Unlike at many large grand openings, no one from Starbucks or any other company showed up with free coffee or food for the waiting line.
In ironic fashion, the honor of being “first visitor” went to Katie of Birmingham (UK), who needed to change her toddler’s diaper in the hour before the grand opening. She asked the security team to allow her out of line to use the nearby public restroom. However, they quickly directly her into the store and down to the basement employee restroom. She came back amazed at Apple’s politeness and of the scores of people inside the area that is normally off-limits to visitors.
The rain stopped within an hour of the grand opening, allowing the waiting line to wake up, put away the umbrellas and get ready for the opening.
As the 10 a.m. moment approached, the press arrived and the waiting line shuffled up within the barricades. The Apple employees came out into the arcade by 9:45 a.m. to yell and clap, and the crowd seemed stunned by their enthusiasm. The employees went back inside, but minutes later there was a countdown of seconds, and Rose was let inside—she immediately ran the 20 feet into the store and quickly disappeared. Seconds later, both lines were let into the store and were met by a long line of employees and high-fives.
Inside the store, the iPhone purchase line took up a blocked-off portion of the rear mezzanine areas. At one point Steve Cano, vice president of international retail, led Scott Forstall, VP of iPhone software, through the store for a tour. Visitors tried to shake his hand, say hello and take his photo.
There seemed to be some type of special guests or celebrities at the grand opening. About an hour after the opening, several persons gathered under the spiral glass staircase to receive filled-up Apple shopping bags, which were given out according to some type of list.
Two hours after the opening, Apple staffers were still dividing visitors into two lines: those who wanted to buy an iPhone and those simply visiting the store. There was no one waiting in the store visitor line, and new arrivals were greeted by high-fives and shouts from employees, and then immediately allowed into the store.
The line of iPhone buyers extended past James Street and numbered about 320 by noon. As they reached the head of the very slowly-moving line, the iPhone buyers were given a red ticket, which they then took to the mezzanine area, where the final purchase line was forming. The iPhone buyers then eventually met with an Apple employee who handled the purchase of their phone.
The store is divided up into an amazing number of spaces, each on one of three levels: ground floor, mezzanine and top level (which is really the second floor in U.S. terminology, or the first floor in European terms).
Within the ground-floor and mezzanine levels, there is a main, middle and rear area. The top level has a middle and rear area, and a Business Center space. The ground floor also has a courtyard/atrium area.
Moving from one level to another is part of the store’s amazing experience. There is a traditional-looking spiral glass staircase at the front, rising from the ground floor to the main mezzanine. At the back-left of the store is a glass staircase from the ground floor to the top level, with a more ordinary zigzag rise of stair treads. The staircase descends from the ground floor to the basement restrooms with a stone staircase.
The spiral glass staircase has its attraction, although visitors to other Apple stores will have experience the feeling before. It’s really the rear glass stairs that are more exciting, especially when viewed from one of the many interior windows that pierce the brick wall containing the stairs.
From the bottom, the glass stairs show the dark, shadowy footprints of visitors going up, and the heads of visitors going down. Viewed from the top level, the stairs resemble one of M.C. Escher’s “infinite loop” stairways, in which people seem to be going up and down on the same structure.
The most obvious component of the store is the brick walls. They can only be described as multi-hued, including red, yellow, blue and black. The texture of the bricks is rough, irregular and porous. The shape of each brick is unpredictable and the dimensions seem to be all different. At several points in the store, lights are installed in the floor pointing upward, skimming across the face of the adjacent brick wall to highlight its texture.
The ground level has a traditional stone floor, while the two upper levels have wide wood planking. The wood color resembles the wood floor that Apple installed in its original retail stores, but appears to be somewhat wider.
Apple has diverged from the usual approach to lighting in the store. There is plenty of natural light from skylights and windows, augmented by a few suspended light boxes. On some levels these square lights provide a soft glow, while on the low-ceiling mezzanine, the light is more harsh because of the reduced distance. Overall, the lighting is more directional than provided at other stores from large, diffused ceiling light panels.
The top level, rear area has windows to the outside and views down the stairway and glass lift (elevator). It has wall and table displays of speakers, and cases for iPads and iPods. The middle area displays printers, hard disks and other peripherals. The display tables through the store are made of English oak, Apple told reporters at the press event earlier, rather than the American maple used at other stores. The difference in color, tone and grain is obvious, but not a striking departure given the different building materials used in the store.
Conspicuously, the floor is cut out in the center of this space, offering a view of the middle mezzanine space. And if you look very closely and at the proper angle, you can also look straight from this space to the ground floor courtyard and front door of the building.
Like on the other levels, Apple has chosen to put the air conditioning ducts and fire sprinkler piping in plain view. The ducts are galvanized steel and reflect colors from below on its shiny silver surface. The ductwork actually curves downward and pierces the floor here on the top level. The sprinkler pipes are small and symmetrically designed, giving them an uncomplicated look.
There is a very sophisticated security system in use, including keycards and video surveillance. The installation is very discreet.
In the midst of this level and the mezzanine level, there are thick, round steel support pillars at various points, painted gray. They have detailing that makes them appear old, but mounting hardware that probably makes them modern. At various points in the ceiling there are iron support beams visible, studded with rivets. Again, the appearance is old, but the materials are probably new.
Leading off from the middle top level is the Business Center. You step down into a smaller room first with a display table, then through a door to a second room with a large video screen and conference-type table in front of you. If you turn around, you’ll notice that Apple retained a brick fireplace from the old building.
The mezzanine level has three areas: the main area runs virtually the width of the building, while the middle and rear areas occupy the leftmost 30-feet of the building.
The main mezzanine ceiling is somewhat low, so the ductwork and sprinkler piping is more obvious overhead. Also very obvious is the long length of the mezzanine. The Genius Bar resides within this area, and the space is wide enough to provide plenty of space for waiting customers.
The wall-mounted Genius Bar logos provide another departure from Apple’s usual interior design—they’re mounted directly to the brickwork instead of on a more uniform material, usually stainless steel. While not invisible, the logos are definitely more difficult to see.
Both the middle and rear mezzanine areas display laptops and iMacs on tall tables with black stools. The areas can be used for sales or training. The rear mezzanine, what Apple calls the “Community Room,” also has a multi-position cashwrap (checkout) counter running the full width of the area.
The middle mezzanine has a view upward to the top level and, through arched cutouts in the brickwork, to the ground-floor courtyard and skylight. The rear mezzanine has a view through white-painted wooden windows to the other buildings that surround the Apple store.
The ground floor space is very wide and has a tall feel to it, since the front space is open to the mezzanine. The spiral glass staircase catches you attention immediately, but you will then quickly notice the black wrought-iron gate towards the back of the building, in a glowing space lit by a skylight. Lastly, you’ll notice that you can also explore a huge area on the left that runs to the back of the building.
Walking down the width of the building in the product display area, the view outside is compelling, especially on a busy Covent Garden day. When you reach the end of the space, you look back and wonder at how far you’ve walked.
If you walk back into the courtyard, you have view in every direction. You can see the mezzanine levels through arched brick openings and, beyond the skylight, the surrounding buildings.
The middle and rear areas of the ground floor have traditional display tables and wall-mounted counters. At the very rear of the ground floor is a multi-position cashwrap position, with multi-color artwork of iPods mounted on the wall behind.
As you enter the rear ground-floor area, you’ll notice a small alcove topped with a glass skylight. Below the skylight on opening day was a tall—and dramatic—display of iPad boxes. Two Apple store employees and a security guard protected the supply.
The courtyard topped by a skylight is truly amazing both in appearance, size and its views of other levels. Originally it was surrounded by large wood-and-glass doors set into archways. In its revised form, the doors and glass have been removed, and the archways bricked in. The original skylight has been removed and replaced with a modern Apple design. A large black, wrought-iron gate and arch have been retained, and provide an accent of detail against the large expanse of brickwork.
The upper floors of surrounding buildings are visible through the skylight, funneling your view of the sky. The result is that direct sunlight into the courtyard is limited to certain times of the day. At other times, there is a bright glow that illuminates the stone floor, brick walls and tall display tables used for training.
From the courtyard, the other retail areas appear darker and warmer, both from the lighting and the brickwork. On two sides you can see people moving past arched interior windows on the upper levels, or peering down at you. Two huge video displays are attached to one sidewall, allowing instructors to display video to students perched on black stools.
There is another level of the store, the basement. Publicly, there are only restrooms. But behind a door is the stockroom for the store, along with Genius Room, offices and other spaces.E-mail this story