The Daily Heller: Barbara de Wilde, From Book Jacket Designer to Bookstore Owner

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A designer today must be nimble—eager and able to pivot fast. The technology changes so fast that building a design career on a single specialty may be satisfying for a time but never forever. Sometimes it involves retraining, sometimes it necessitates entering a new profession, and sometimes it means knitting a variety of interests into a unique expertise. That is the case here.

Beginning in 1991, Barbara de Wilde became known for designing hundreds of splendid and memorable book jackets and covers at the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group as well as Simon and Schuster, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, The Penguin Press, W.W. Norton and others, until she ran out of creative steam.

After 10 years in book publishing, de Wilde transitioned to magazines, and in 2001 became art director at Martha Stewart Living to initiate a major redesign. Her interest for editorial was eclipsed by the dawn of the digital age. In 2011 she was accepted into the SVA Interaction MFA IXD program, and upon graduation in 2012, from 2013–2017 she led the new digital product group at The New York Times to create additional subscription models for Times content. The resulting apps, like NYT Now, NYT Opinion and NYT Cooking, were launched and continue to bring in the clicks.

In a few weeks de Wilde starts yet another chapter. She plans on inaugurating an entirely new yet decidedly related career. The following is an example of transformation that is inspiring and enviable.

The architectural plan showing the new bay window in the front of the building.

After designing books and jackets for so long, then changing careers to interaction, it seems sublime that you’ve started a bookstore—books and interaction (customers). Why were you so moved to become a book dealer?

As logical as that progression seems, I think my path to opening a bookstore is a bit more emotional. When I think back to the time when I left book cover design to enter graduate school for interaction design, I was certain that I needed to change my skills entirely to stay relevant in the design industry. I gave up my expertise, and though it felt terrifying to start at the beginning, or what felt like the beginning of a field of design, this turned out to be one of my better decisions. In the process of learning technology, I conquered my fear of technology. After school, I was fortunate to be hired at The New York Times and to work as a digital product designer.

Every day in that role, I had the opportunity to apply what I learned. I can’t say that I loved that work as much as I loved traditional graphic design practice, but the entrepreneurial side of the internet and the system thinking is really fun. Nearly every interaction designer I know wants to start their own product, but it’s very difficult to do and succeed. Still, I have a strong entrepreneurial inclination and I was casting about for something that I could build and own. At the same time, my husband and I bought a house near the Delaware River Towns, and we were very drawn to the area and community. I wondered if there was anything that I could do professionally here, away from New York City and away from an office and a computer screen. A building came up for sale in Frenchtown—the building that housed a bookstore—and I jumped at the opportunity. My husband and I have never worked as business partners, but we decided to ask the previous bookstore owners if they were interested in selling to us. Then the pandemic hit. The bookstore decided to close, and instead of buying their store we have spent the last year renovating the building, going to bookstore school, designing and planning the space, buying the software and buying the books. We hope to open in the next month.

The new bay window in the front of the building. Views of the renovation of the interior showing the removal of the interior walls and staircase.

To finally answer your question, I think I’m now ready to start designing my own life. I want to build something for myself and my family. I want to be a part of my community. I want to live in a beautiful place with easy access to walks and woods and water. I want to walk to work. I want to contribute to the cultural life of the town I love. A bookstore could be that addition, a bit of icing on the cake of civilization.

Have you “retired” from design? If so, why?

Nah, I design every day … still. My daughter is part of team bookstore and we’ve been working together on the branding, signage, bookmarks, business cards, social media, website. There is so much on the list to do. We’re also developing—here is a link to our Instagram account where we have been chronicling our renovation progress.

What are your plans for the store? Will you have a community focus?

Yes. This is truly a family business, and my husband, Scott, will be running most of the events. We have a very flexible space with a small tea shop in the back. We are gathering experts in the field of childhood play/reading, poetry, writing and so on. We are making the space available for them to run workshops and programs. Scott has experience in music presenting and he will be scheduling small concerts. Our town has a new arts center, The Artyard, with whom we are in conversation. Helen, my daughter, and I are planning artisan craft workshops. It’s still very early, but we want to have a full calendar for 2022.

I’m envious of this move in changing your life. Should I be?

I’ve been thinking a lot about immersion journalism, where the writer embeds herself in the experience as a means of understanding the story. I have a great deal of curiosity about different professional experiences. I loved working at Knopf, but I was so curious about the magazine art direction at Martha Stewart Living. I was fascinated by the development of typefaces and wanted to commission them. I wanted to know what it was like to teach design. I wanted to know about designing for digital experiences. I’ve also wanted to open a candy store. I guess this is in my nature.

I’m really enjoying this project and I’m enjoying living in the country full time. I love meeting new people, I like the challenge of starting a business. I’m not sleeping a lot. (Maybe I could answer this question a year after we open!)

Groundbreaking day at the bookstore.
Some of the shovels designed for the groundbreaking ceremony.

What is your dream outcome?

A successful outcome would be: Frenchtown bookshop is able to pay its employees and all expenses. (I won’t take a salary until we’re sustainable.) We create a place of ideas where people can gather and shop and become inspired. We put books in the hands of children and teens and they come back for more. I get to work with my family.