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Newmarket’s Story Pod book exchange is a reminder that design matters

the architourist

The story of Story Pod has a very happy ending

The HollisWealth Story Pod was designed by Atelier Kastelic Buffey, a high-end residential firm.

In 2016, during its first full summer, the little reading space in Newmarket attracted some international suitors, from as far as Gabon and South Korea

Once upon a time, there was a little piece of public space that needed a purpose. The little space in question was in Newmarket, at the south end of the revitalized Riverwalk Commons area, and although it was near happy trees and the Holland River, it was very, very sad.

One day, the hero of our story (actually, there are many heroes), Mark Agnoletto, senior manager of public works for the Town of Newmarket, picked up the phone and called his old high-school friend Aaron Finbow, an architect at Atelier Kastelic Buffey.

"Aaron," he said, "I've got some sad space. But I know how you can make it happy."

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"Do tell," Mr. Finbow said.

Soon, with the help of HollisWealth, who shared some wealth, the Story Pod book exchange was born, and the once-sad space by the river has lived happily ever after.

The Story Pod book exchange has transformed a sad space into a vibrant destination where residents line up waiting for the pod to open.

While some of the above has been fictionalized, the HollisWealth Story Pod is, indeed, a happy place. During a one-hour period on a sunny Thursday morning in mid-May, no fewer than 10 people – older couples, a mom with her little ones, two twentysomething friends – stopped to partake in the charms of Newmarket's most stylish free library.

Although some were discovering the little, slatted, black-stained beauty for the first time ("Oh, isn't that cute!" was heard at least twice), others arrived prepared with a few books to drop off before taking one for the road.

"We've even heard of lineups in the morning, waiting for this to be open," says Kelly Buffey, a principal at AKB, a high-end residential firm that started in 2004. "I think it's a great way to involve the community," she adds. "And it takes us out of our typical realm of residential [design], so it was a good opportunity for us to do something a bit unique."

Kelly Buffey, a prinicpal at AKB, says the Story Pod has a 'mystery' about it when closed up.

And it is unique. When closed up for the evening, Story Pod is a tight, eight-foot-wide by eight-foot-long by 10-foot-tall box. But, even then, it doesn't completely hide its function: behind the slats, Lexan windows and some clever LED lighting illuminate the books. "So, it becomes a beacon in the night and there's a mystery about it," Ms. Buffey explains.

When Town of Newmarket workers swing Story Pod's doors open each morning around 7:30, it becomes, well, an open book of a building rather than a mystery. In fact, the way the two big doors pivot on custom-made hinges, they look very much like giant book spines. Inside, rather than more black-stained wood, the little library exposes rich, marine-grade mahogany panels to passersby. And if that weren't enough, built in benches act like a crooked, waggling finger signalling those same passersby to come and take a load off.

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It's a luxurious little jewel box that's even more impressive considering it wasn't manufactured by a high-end millwork shop, but rather by town employees who aren't trained cabinet makers. "It was a learning curve for them, but they did a fantastic job in execution," Ms. Buffey offers.

Designed for the town in the spring of 2015 by AKB pro bono, Story Pod was built and ready by the end of the summer. In its first full summer, 2016, the little building attracted some international attention, which, in turn, resulted in suitors. Sylvia Bongo Ondimba, the first lady of Gabon, has inquired about purchasing one, and questions have come from neighbouring Toronto and Mississauga, nearby Stratford and Detroit, and faraway France. Delegates from South Korea have now visited Newmarket twice to inspect Story Pod, which has resulted in a licensing agreement.

The Story Pod was built by town employees who aren’t trained cabinet makers.

Because of this response, AKB is considering forming a separate company to handle inquiries and licensing. "It has a broad reach around the world, it's just incredible," the soft-spoken Ms. Buffey says with a laugh and a shake of the head. "I think the heart and soul that went into the project has really emanated."

Not surprisingly, those emanations have also reached both the Ontario Association of Architects, which bestowed a 2017 Design Excellence Award on the project, and Architizer in New York, where a jury voted it best in the Commercial-Pop-Ups & Temporary category.

That design and architecture could improve the human condition was a tenet accepted by a great many back in the postwar period. It's why we allowed slums to be razed and expressways to snake through our cities. And while we've taken off the rose-coloured glasses and placed that belief at arm's length for obvious reasons, that a little building dedicated to books can have such an impact warms the heart and reminds us that design does matter.

"The main purpose is for the residents – citizen-centric, right, take care of your people" Mr. Agnoletto says. "But the overspill of all that greatness is just a gravy to us."

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Indeed. And not that it needs to be said, but …

The End.

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