One Saturday evening in 2007, the aged iMac on my desk gave up the ghost. I was trying to get some weekend work done, and the machine was No Longer Having It. Around 11:30 p.m., my soon-to-be-wife said, “You know, you could just go replace it. The new store is open 24-7.” She meant the flagship Apple Store, unveiled a year earlier on Fifth Avenue near 59th Street. Over the next hour, we warmed up to the hey-why-not oddness of the idea and headed uptown.
During the day, that store is bustling if not hectic. At 12:30 a.m., it was quiet, but it was not empty. I remember noticing, then as now, that the staff was diverse, enthusiastic, fiercely trained. Among the few other customers was a foursome in full eveningwear: two men in tuxedos, two women in gowns, straight from a party or perhaps the Metropolitan Opera.
It was likely the one part of the experience the folks in Cupertino would not have expected, at least not directly. (Whereas, as they did intend, I bought a computer.) What is inarguably true, though, is that the store itself has become a destination, even a landmark, in the past dozen years. Even as we all talk about the end of retail, Apple claims more annual visitors than the Statue of Liberty. (Although to be fair, the store is a little easier to reach.) Its phenomenal drawing power is doubly curious when you remember that Apple has a perfectly nice e-commerce site, where you can absolutely preorder a new iPhone the day before it is released. Why would a person bother to get up early, camp out, line up? A peculiar sense of community, one that is magnified in the center of a city of strangers.
This week, Deirdre O’Brien, the 30-year Apple employee who is now its senior vice-president of retail and people, laughed when I told her about my unexpectedly dressy late-night shopping experience. She’s audibly giddy about the forthcoming reopening of the store, which has been closed since January 2017 for a big renovation. Version 2.0 opens on Friday, September 20, and this is, apart from a couple of slides that flashed past during Apple’s annual announcements festivities last week, everyone’s first look at it.
The original Fifth Avenue Apple Store, designed by the firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson in intense (very intense) collaboration with Apple itself, finally dispatched the curse of an awful site. From the time the General Motors Building opened in 1968, the sunken shopping court out front had hosted one flop after another. A couple of restaurants and stores had survived there over the years, but none had thrived. That was because going down the steps into the plaza meant descending from the life of the sidewalk into a dank pit. (A generation earlier, the brand-new Rockefeller Center had this same problem, which was solved by installing an ice rink.) When the real-estate developer Donald Trump — remember him? — bought the GM building in the mid-1990s, he made one of the few good urbanist decisions of his life and raised the plaza to grade. In 2003, after he sold the building to Harry Macklowe, Apple began implementing its plans to put a store on top.
It succeeded in part by turning that plaza into a podium — in the Greek-temple sense, not the lecturer one. Now, instead of descending, you ascended processionally, as if approaching a marble-columned monument, on your way to the great glass sanctuary of Mac. It almost immediately became a landmark, a highly visible spot where people could agree to meet. Although neither the iPhone nor Instagram existed yet in 2006, Apple had also inadvertently made a stage on which millions of selfie performances could, and would, play out.
Fifth Avenue Version 1.0 was, despite its success, an imperfect retail space. The above-ground cube was beautiful, but the there was often a line at the door, because the staircase and the elevator could take only so many people at a time. That was especially true on, say, a holiday-season Saturday, when the store itself reached capacity. Once you made your way in, you were—despite the light coming down through the glass cube—pretty clearly in a subterranean space. Not awful; just kind of basement-like.
The principal changes, in this renovation, address that dramatically. Most significantly, the floor has been lowered and the roof elevated, adding about 8 feet to the ceiling height. (Most of the clearance was reclaimed from a parking garage below.) The newly raised plaza has been perforated with a grid of round skylights that will bring sunlight down into the store. Eighteen of them, which Apple’s people are calling “sky lenses,” have stainless-steel bezels, mirror-finished, and they’re raised above the plaza, sort of like shiny mushrooms. Chris Brathwaite, senior director for Apple retail and design, tells me that they’re meant to foster “sitting, selfies, and reflection,” which seems extremely likely to pan out.
Once you get down into the store, the natural light from those portholes will be augmented with a new LED system overhead, one that will responsively adjust its color temperature over the course of the day, shading toward or away from yellowish or blueish as the sunlight changes, a bit like the “Night Shift” feature native to iPhones and Macbooks. There’s enough light in the basement now that a group of live trees have been planted down there.
The spaces for activities, Genius consultations, and other such interactions have also been expanded. That, in fact, may be part of the reason Apple Stores remain relevant as most retail shopping collapses. As a consumer purchase, a Mac or an iPhone is more like a car than (say) a pair of khakis, in that you probably need a technician now and then.
One thing that has not changed, at least in form, is the glass cube itself. It’s famous now, Brathwaite explains, and not something to be messed with. Also, inside Apple, it’s become associated with the memory of Steve Jobs. (Though the cube you’ll see now is in fact a fresh replacement: It had to be demolished and built again to make the reconstruction of the plaza possible.) “The glass cube stands proudly as a testament to Steve’s brilliance, and our 900 incredible team members are so excited to welcome customers back,” Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, told me by e-mail. It takes a lot of employees to staff the store around the clock.
Although the basic form of the store will be familiar, its familiar features have been reimagined as well. The polished stainless-and-glass staircase is bigger now, and a backstage space has been reclaimed for an “experience room,” where customers can try out HomePods and the like. Altogether, the store is roughly twice as big as it was. On the north and south ends, there are now additional doors at the sidewalk level, which, Brathwaite offers, are intended for the customer who wants to get in and out with a quick purchase, rather than treating the visit as a pilgrimage. “The entrance for locals, and the entrance for tourists,” he joked to me. All those entrances will once again be open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Selfies on top, all day; operagoers through the side doors, all night.