The interior of the Drama Book Shop. Photo by Drew Dockser.

Designer David Korins on Creating Community in the New Drama Book Shop

It’s the most anticipated revival of the season.

The Drama Book Shop, a beloved 104-year-old independent institution that closed its doors in early 2019, will reopen to the public at its new location at 266 West 39th Street on June 10. Purchased by Hamilton collaborators — creator Lin-Manuel Miranda; the show’s director, Thomas Kail; lead producer Jeffrey Seller; and theatre owner James L. Nederlander — the store had been previously owned by Rozanne Seelen. Seelen’s late husband, actor Arthur Seelen, had bought the store, previously located on West 40th Street, in 1958. The Drama Book Shop quickly became a research hub for theater students, a creative sanctuary for playwrights, and an erudite retreat for literary-arts enthusiasts.

“For me, The Drama Book Shop has always been the heart and soul of the New York City theater community,” Miranda said in a press statement. “I sat and read plays there in high school. I discovered incredible artists and new works through staff recommendations. I wrote so many songs from In the Heights in the basement there. I’m excited for the next generation of storytellers and theater lovers to come in, explore, and be inspired.”

The Drama Book Shop. Photo by Drew Dockser.
The Drama Book Shop. Photo by Drew Dockser.

Hamilton scenic designer and creative director David Korins and his team were tapped to create the interior design of The Drama Book Shop. The new design, inspired by European coffeehouses and reading rooms, features vast seating and a full-service café serving coffee, teas, and light snacks. Broadway Direct spoke to Korins about his design inspiration, elements he says not to miss, and how his design will encourage in-person community after a year-plus of virtual togetherness.

How did you become part of The Drama Book Shop’s comeback?

I have been a dear friend and longtime collaborator with Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tommy Kail, and Jeffrey Seller. So I’ve worked with them on many, many, many projects in theater, film, television, and exhibitions. It was sort of a natural collaboration.

What was Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail’s vision for the shop, and what did your collaboration process look like?

As always when we collaborate, they give an emotional story. Something like, “Hey! We want people to feel warm and welcome. We want them to come in and be able to get a great cup of coffee and a little something to eat … curl up in a chair, read a book, or do some work.” But they didn’t get too specific with regard to actual decor. It was more Jeffrey Seller and Thomas, who came to me and said there is an idea about 19th-century European cafés and coffeehouses, where people sit with a beverage and read a book and engage in intellectual conversation. That was kind of our leaping-off place. For me, when I think about the experience I think I would want to have, as a patron of a bookstore, there’s of course the decor and the feeling in the room, the glow of the lights, and the overall emotional landscape.

Then I said to those guys, “I have this thought about what would it be if we could make, kind of, architecture or a real visual statement with books.” So I pitched to them this idea of this bookworm. It is made up of 2,400 books and scripts and scores. It’s 140 feet long and weighs about 3,500 pounds. The idea was to make a chronological timeline from ancient history — from ancient Greece all the way down to the latest books, spanning 2,500 years of publishing. But could it break through the back wall of the bookshop and spiral its way, all the way through, around the stacks, around the lights, and down into a piece of furniture? Would it be a thing that, if you went to the bookshop, it would be an iconic theatrical “Wow!” that would be something that people would talk about? It would become a showpiece. It’s a little something different; we’re all theater- and live event–makers. The idea of making a space that has been scaled, and a place that you can slide into and have a great drink, is wonderful. But The Drama Book Shop is also something kind of magical and theatrical and transporting.

The Drama Book Shop. Photo by Drew Dockser.
The Drama Book Shop. Photo by Drew Dockser.

What references did you use in addition to the European cafés?

I will say that we custom-made all of the case work for the shop. It’s all specifically built and designed for that space. There is an architectural frieze that goes around the top of the bookshop that is original to the building in 1926 and we left. It’s a kind of a gold-leaf, architectural frieze, and we left it, and then we actually worked it into the design and then worked a lot of the case work around that molding profile to try to help the store fit more with the architectural bones in the building.

Did you incorporate any of the shop’s original designs? You know, will a longtime Drama Book Shop patron spot something and know it’s familiar?

The space is so dramatically different [than the original], but I think that they will recognize some staff members who have been longtime employees. Also, the wonderful, wonderful resources of materials. One thing that we did use is the original outdoor signage from the original Drama Book Shop for the new store.

The Drama Book Shop. Photo by Drew Dockser.
The Drama Book Shop. Photo by Drew Dockser.

Are there any elements of your design that one should specifically look for, or something you don’t want attendees to miss?

I think you’re not going to be able to miss that bookworm. [Chuckles.] That’s the most unique and iconic element of the entire design. I also think there are two other things: First, there are over 125 vintage or re-creation theater posters that line the walls. Some of them are shows that we all worked on together, others are of other iconic shows. Some of them were given to Thomas by the late, great literary theater agent Gilbert Parker. That was important, to put some of those in. There’s some really, really deep and beautiful history on those walls. In the store’s back corner, for the Hamilton fans, we’ve re-created two chairs from the show that George Washington sits in during the Cabinet battle scenes, and you can sit in them, and hang out and take pictures in them. For the hyper theater fans, there’s that little element as well.

How does one mentally shift from Broadway set design to structural interior design for a store or immersive experience, or do you look at it as the same creative process?

The truth is, the experience of designing and creating an environment, to me, is the same. You have a client, or a collaborator, and you have a set of goals and you have a confined space and budget. And so, the process of collaborating with, let’s say, Lin and Thomas and Jeffrey on Hamilton, was very similar to collaborating with them on the Hamilton Exhibition and very similar to collaborating with them on The Drama Book Shop. Because they, as my collaborators, have ideas and hopes and dreams and a budget, and we just sort of put ourselves in a room and think about the best ideas and how do we want people to interact with the design, and how we want our guests to feel.

The Drama Book Shop. Photo by Drew Dockser.
The Drama Book Shop. Photo by Drew Dockser.

We’ve been without community for so long because of the pandemic, and I suspect readers are going to want to return to The Drama Book Shop, not just to read and have a cup of coffee, but to feel connected to the theater community again. How does your design help foster a space for community and conversation?

A bookshop and a coffeeshop are two of the most iconic meeting places that you can have. I think that right from the beginning, Lin, Thomas, and Jeffrey all said to me, Listen, the original Drama Book Shop looms very, very, very large in the story of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tommy Kail’s careers. They literally worked on In the Heights in the original Drama Book Shop. They are really walking the walk with regard to creating an environment or community to literally help foster a love of the theatrical community, a love of the literary community, and a love for New York. They’re putting their money where their mouth is, and they are building a space complete with overstuffed furniture and little nooks to read in, and little café tables, and banquettes to sit in and drink coffee or a hot beverage. They are making that space. They are hoping that if you are a tourist or you’re a New Yorker, that this is going to be a place for you to come, stop in, and enjoy.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.