We flick through the iconic titles that make up Phoebe Lovatt’s Public Library and discuss the freedom that comes with defining success for yourself.
Most of us recognize the physical sensation that comes with living an online existence. There’s a certain buzz in your brain. A vague feeling that your eyes and nervous system have had enough. Enough memes, enough hot-takes on complicated issues, enough curated perfection served alongside destruction—sitting shoulder to shoulder on a privately owned app designed to keep you distracted on an endless scroll. We’ve all had enough.
When you walk into a bookshop or library, this digital buzz often dissipates, replaced by a calmer wave of energy as you turn over the pages of tangible publications that require you to interact with them physically. Reading printed matter that isn’t backlit, optimized for “maximum engagement”, or linked to an endless stream of potential distractions offers your brain and breathing a chance to slow down. This slowed-down experience is one Phoebe Lovatt knows only too well, “The physical experience of holding a book is such a vital antidote to this very weird, ephemeral feeling we get from constantly being on screen.” It’s something she’s keen to offer visitors of her Public Library, a reading and reference space situated on the ground floor of a beautiful Georgian building near Brick Lane in East London.
However, as much as Phoebe recognizes the counterpoint books can offer to our digital existence, she’s wary of reducing them to that one purpose. She explains, “Books don’t just exist in opposition to an on-screen experience. They’re obviously immensely valuable in and of themselves. I think they have become more important than ever, and that’s why people are still buying.”
So, it makes sense that across the shelves of her Public Library, Phoebe generously offers access to a beautifully curated selection of books, zines, and magazines available for all who venture through the door. It’s a selection that will satisfy the most curious minds, a space where you’ll find inspiring reads by bell hooks, Bertrand Russell, Anaïs Nin, James Baldwin, and Alan Watts. In addition, there are rare cult titles, large format art books, and zines from Cafe Royal Books and Weird Walk, alongside reading lists from the cultural guests Phoebe speaks to on the Deep Read podcast she launched earlier this year. This isn’t your average indie bookshop; think of it as your dream library space, with Phoebe as your most welcoming and charming host.
Books and magazines have always played a huge part in Phoebe’s life. Growing up in central London with parents who were journalists, she spent many hours trawling book shops after school with her dad, waiting while he poured over rare finds in the likes of Skoob, an iconic second-hand bookshop. “We lived in the Brunswick Centre, which is now an architectural landmark, but it was really run down at the time. I’d spend my time walking through Bloomsbury—which has its obvious literary history—and reading in bookshops.”
This formative experience of books shops as a welcoming space was one of the driving ideas behind Public Library. With more and more public spaces co-opted by corporate landlords, there are fewer places where people can come together that don’t involve spending money on an expensive coffee or having access to premium memberships. “You can go out for a drink in London, and you can go shopping; you can sit in Soho House, but there are very few communal spaces where people just hang out.” Opening Public Library is Phoebe’s attempt to create a space where people can come together, connect face to face, and share ideas—with no pressure to part with money.
“My library is an archive of longings.”
– Susan Sontag
As an extra element of this open-door policy, Phoebe runs a monthly salon, inviting the growing Public Library community to come together and share their thoughts on beauty, aesthetics, and attention. These sessions are very important to Phoebe, “Coming out of two years of isolation, having a physical space, I’m meeting all these people that I’d never normally meet, and it’s been hugely rewarding.” These interactions and conversations have provided a much richer appreciation of where culture and society are currently at and create space for a deeper exploration of issues than you can encounter online. “I think it’s easy to become cynical about humankind in general,” Phoebe says of life online. “It’s easy to feel like culture has flattened and that all we care about is a surface, physical appearance, but I’ve had a lot of experiences at the salons where I’ve met interesting people and discovered the fascinating, niche things they’re into. I don’t think online culture has enough space for that.”
“The physical experience of holding a book is such a vital antidote to this very weird, ephemeral feeling we get from constantly being on screen.”
In 2020, as the pandemic disrupted our daily lives, many people started to readdress their relationship to work. We collectively examined the place it held in our lives and how things could be different. These were some of the questions Phoebe addressed in her self-published book, Work Ethics which you can find on the shelves of the Public Library. It’s a beautifully written exploration of philosophical ideas about how we can work more ethically. Split into chapters that look at Freedom, Care, Simplicity, Service, and Creativity, this isn’t a handbook on productivity or how to “hack” your career; it’s a thoughtful dissection of how we think about work and our relationships with each other.
Phoebe’s own relationship with work has gone through many iterations. Having been inspired by her parent’s solid work ethic from a young age, Phoebe has always worked hard, “I just wanted to be in the world of work. I wanted to work hard, and it wasn’t just about being perceived. It was about having a lot of energy and creating.” Across brand projects, The WW Club—a community Phoebe nurtured for working women, writing books and celebrity profiles for titles such as Dazed, i-D and Elle, hosting podcasts and moderating panels with the late, great Virgil Abloh, Phoebe has hustled and carved out an impressive career portfolio that has always held community and culture at its heart. But this hasn’t come without problems and sacrifices.
Whilst living and working in New York, a city that vibrates on the energy of commerce and money, Phoebe found she wasn’t immune to the lure of productivity and embarked on a period that she admits verged on workaholism. “When I moved to New York after living in LA, my expenses doubled overnight, so under those circumstances, everything becomes intrinsically linked to money.” However, after two serious back injuries, she found that life couldn’t carry on as usual, and she took time out to recover in Mexico, “That period was the first time I’d slowed down in years. Even though my injuries were accidents, I realized it was a sign that I was pushing my body too hard. I felt that in New York, there was no way for me to separate myself from that work culture and pace of life, which was why I went to spend time in Mexico.”
“Success to me is a feeling of peace—not succumbing to the pressure in our culture to rush and endlessly put things out there. I really respect people who create on their own terms.”
Now fully recovered and back in London surrounded by her close-knit community of friends —old and new—, Phoebe is excited about the evolution of the Public Library, but she’s not in any rush to replicate traditional models of success. There is the accepted wisdom within many circles that for an endeavor or business to be successful; you need to expand, show year-on-year growth and optimize as much as possible. However, in many cases, this isn’t relevant. For a generation who have seen the failings of this approach, many creative entrepreneurs like Phoebe aren’t interested in chasing that model, “With past projects, I’ve felt the pressure to expand it and secure brand partnerships, but I found it ended up losing what I wanted it to be about. So, I’m more aware of that now.”
Whilst Phoebe isn’t wholly immune to the pressure to be productive, she is acutely aware of the problematic by-product of attaching self-worth to output. She’s feeling calmer and more balanced about where she’s at, her relationship to work, and her definition of what success looks like, “Success to me is a feeling of peace—not succumbing to the pressure in our culture to rush and endlessly put things out there. I really respect people who create on their own terms. As an individual having lived a very frenetic life, which has been a lot of fun, I’m looking for a feeling of peace and a sense of integrity.”
Phoebe Lovatt is a London-based freelance writer and moderator exploring contemporary issues such as work culture, and attention in the digital age. These issues are also at the heart of two of her books—The Working Woman’s Handbook and Work Ethics. In 2021, she founded Public Library, a newsletter as well as a reading and reference space for “sharing mind-expanding books and ideas“, situated on the ground floor of a beautiful Georgian building near Brick Lane in East London.