There is little product overlap between Canadian bookseller behemoth Indigo and the Paris concept store Colette, an epicentre of cool for fashion and lifestyle. But within steps of the entrance at both Indigo's Bay-Bloor location in Toronto and the Parisian shop on Rue Saint-Honoré, people cluster around tables piled with giant, glossy books.
The subject matter may be different – art-world darling Banksy and compelling portraits of freckled faces by Reto Caduff at Colette versus James Bond and The Life and Love of Cats at Indigo – but the placement of these time-intensive tomes before the bread-and-butter merchandise is no accident.
Named after their traditional perch, coffee-table books are being elevated to the status typically bestowed upon objets d'art and other collectibles. Certainly when some titles cost as much as a monthly paycheque – Assouline currently offers books priced at $3,000 and higher – it's clear the coffee-table book has entered caviar territory.
"It's the idea of building a collection – these are not just things that are big and expensive; they give an impression," says Prosper Assouline, who launched his niche imprint with wife Martine in 1994.
And essentially, the collection acts as shorthand for the style or cultural identity you want to project. If you stack your Design Within Reach bookshelf with books on Pharrell Williams, Paris in the 1920s and Oscar Niemeyer, you are not only feathering your nest with interesting reading material, you are assembling a collection of clues about your tastes and preferences. Sometimes, whether you end up reading them or not can be beside the point.
"I think we've really hit a real sweet spot at the moment where these books have become very fashionable and very stylish and more collectible than ever," says Charles Miers, publisher of Rizzoli. "And it may well be subliminally related to the fact that the printed book – like many other things – is something to be valued."
This doesn't apply to all printed books, of course. Last month, Publishers Weekly reported that e-books account for 22 per cent of all book purchases in the final quarter of 2012, up 14 per cent from the same period last year. But Toronto-based decorators Michelle Lloyd Bermann and Christine Ralphs believe the Kindle effect has actually given the coffee-table book new relevance.
"If you love beautiful images, it is still not available on a screen," says Ralphs, who oversaw the visual merchandising in the nascent days of Club Monaco on Queen Street West. Back then, the store boasted a "newsstand" with large-format books. Since then, more and more clothing retailers such as J.Crew and Club Monaco have been propping their stores with arts books, keenly aware that they serve a decorative role that helps shape a broader image.
Clothing designer Kim Newport-Mimran offers art books in her Pink Tartan shops to create a similar environment as her home. That someone buying a sweater might also purchase a book on society photographer Slim Aarons is all part of the store's lifestyle positioning. "I felt like it should be a personal environment," says Mimran. "I design visually, so I just have to have that visual inspiration."
At Indigo, Bahram Olfati, vice-president of the adult trade category, says that the number of art book titles has not increased but that they are getting more visibility. "The quality has gone up, the pricing has come down and the collectible feel to them drastically increased," he says, noting that they are among the top "giftable items" this season.
Assouline says art books make an obvious gift because they explore subjects that bring people pleasure. "It's something alive, something personal, something tactile," he says.
Something, in other words, that cannot be derived from a handheld screen. Indeed, as publishers started fearing the profound effect of Kindles and iPads on book sales, the Assoulines did not see these digital devices as a threat.
"Our books have nothing to do with that. They're not digital; they're made with love," he says from New York.
While it's true that someone can spend just $39 on Alexander McQueen: Evolution, there are as many examples at the other end of the spectrum, most notably Assouline's The Unlimited Collection, a supersized series of books that delve into the worlds of the Ballets Russes, Barbie and Fernand Léger. Each page is hand-glued. Starting price: $695. A massive limited-edition version of Gaia, Canadian Guy Laliberté's images from space, is available on watercolour paper featuring 25 gatefold images, 90 illustrations and layered topographic embossing, all hand-bound and housed in a linen clamshell case, for $7,000 (there's a mass-market version for $65).
Lloyd Bermann, for one, is less keen on the higher-end books that have continued in the tradition of S.U.M.O., the epic Helmut Newton tome published as a limited edition of 10,000 by Taschen in 1999. Dubbed "the most expensive book produced in the 20th century," it weighed in at 30 kilograms, came with its own stand and was priced at €10,000.
Instead, she suggests that a beautiful book can fulfill the same aspirational role as a designer fragrance. "You can't buy the $1,200 handbag but you can buy the Manolo Blahnik book and sit down and drool over it."