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Tim Cook hopes Apple’s $30 million rehab of D.C.’s Carnegie Library will do more than sell iPhones

The Carnegie Library store will be one of 13 high-profile locations across the world that also utilize the company’s “town square” concept. Each local staff offers a bevy of classes for creative types to maximize their Apple products for shooting photographs, editing video or producing music. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

As a company, Apple is less focused on selling stuff. It doesn’t sell as many iPhones as it once did and is more focused on selling subscriptions and services, none of which require a store for purchases or even consideration.

This is why it is striking that, under chief executive Tim Cook, the company has made it a priority to open a flagship store next week in Washington. Why spend two years and probably more than $30 million renovating the 116-year-old Carnegie Library into an Apple Store?

“Probably one of the least done things in an Apple Store is to buy something,” Cook said recently by phone. Instead, he said, people come to explore new products, of course, but also get training and services for iPhones or iPads they already own.

“We should probably come up with a name other than ‘store,’ ” he said, “because it’s more of a place for the community to use in a much broader way.”

How true that is may determine the success of Apple’s new landmark in Washington, as well as its future as a retailer. The Carnegie Library store, opening Saturday May 11, will be one of 13 high-profile locations across the world that also utilize the company’s “town square” concept. Each local staff offers a bevy of classes for creative types to maximize their Apple products for shooting photographs, editing video or producing music.

Apple still sold a few iPhones last year (218 million), but sales fell 17 percent last quarter. Six weeks ago, Cook took the stage at the Steve Jobs Theater in the company’s Cupertino, Calif., headquarters and announced an array of new services — television, news, gaming, credit cards — that represent the company’s future.

So why invest so much time and money to turn the Carnegie Library, which is set in the middle of Mount Vernon Square, into a showcase for its wares?

The location, christened by President Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie at a grand opening celebration in 1903, is one of the city’s most historically significant buildings. Carnegie donated the library’s $350,000 construction cost, which is a little more than $10 million in today’s dollars.

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That pales in comparison, however, to what it appears Apple paid to restore the Beaux-Arts-style building.

Cook’s team declined to share details of how much the company spent on the project, but preliminary budget details shared with The Washington Post called for more than $30 million of work, including $7 million toward facade restoration, $300,000 to restore the stairwells and $2 million in site work and landscaping. On top of that, Apple agreed to lease the building — which has been nearly vacant for years — for $700,000 a year on a 10-year lease.

Cook said that reconstituting the Carnegie Library according to its original design standards was the company’s “most historic, ambitious restoration by far, in the world.” This from a company that has retrofitted stores in New York’s Grand Central Terminal and a 130-year-old former bank in Paris.

He said such signature projects will help the company showcase its new services through classes and programming the company calls Today at Apple.

But the Carnegie project is also aimed at achieving a higher purpose at the company, which is to deepen customers’ affiliation of Apple with something positive — creativity — at a time when the public finds itself increasingly at odds with big-tech companies over jagged political issues surrounding economic inequality, social media and privacy.

Steve Jobs famously loved calligraphy and launched the Think Different advertising campaign during a time when adoring a tech company seemed far more innocent.

“Our roots are in education and creativity,” Cook said. “You think about where the company started from and Steve and the team at the time were very focused on providing people tools that allowed them to do incredible things.”

“We’ve been serving the creative community as a company since the founding of the company, and the truth is everyone should be a part of the creative community,” Cook added, “so this is our way to democratize it.”

On a recent Friday afternoon in Apple’s store in Georgetown, dozens of people lined up at the Genius Bar service station for help with fixing cracked screens, rebooting computers and updating iPads.

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At a set of wooden tables in the back, away from the products, the store showcased a slate of creative programs, including a tutorial on family portraits that a father and son enjoyed midday.

But no one at the Georgetown location would confuse the store’s purpose: devices. How to fix them, upgrade them, buy accessories for them.

Deirdre O’Brien, the new head of Apple retail, said the arts programming isn’t envisioned as a way to drive sales.

“We created Today at Apple to take our customers further, deepen their relationship with their product,” she said. “We didn’t necessarily create it with the idea of driving more revenue. It’s part of the experience of visiting our store.”

Will Cook and O’Brien succeed in persuading people to view the new store as something more than a store? Although it is built in a former public library, the city’s downtown library is a few blocks away. The Apple logo will glow on the side of the building the way it does on the back of an Apple laptop.

On the other hand, the store at the Carnegie Library will hardly resemble the Georgetown location.

Visitors (customers?) will enter through pristinely restored marble entryways to a naturally lit central events area that the company says is open to whoever wanders in. No sales pitch. No questions asked. Devices and services will be tucked into side rooms.

The nonprofit Historical Society of Washington, D.C., which will share the building with Apple rent-free, will also enjoy a completely upgraded space where it will open a new D.C. History Center. The organization is planning to launch a retrospective on 20th-century Washington through panoramic photographs.

Apple has planned six weeks of programs headed by local artists that begin May 18. The programs include a performance by D.C. rapper GoldLink and a party hosted by local arts group No Kings Collective.

“It's a great sort of intersection — technology with humanities,” said John Suau, the Historical Society’s executive director. “Hopefully, it makes people feel like they have a sense of place here.”

City officials, including Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), are celebrating the Apple project. For all its history and beauty, the Carnegie Library hasn’t been fully utilized in more than 15 years, despite repeated failed attempts.

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The city provided the building to the Historical Society on a 99-year, no-cost lease in 1999. After raising $20 million, the group opened a museum dedicated to D.C. history there, but it lasted less than two years. Another group planned a music museum, which never even opened.

Most recently, the International Spy Museum’s owners proposed a major expansion and overhaul of the building for their museum’s new home. The D.C. panel tasked with protecting historical buildings turned down that plan three times before the effort fell apart.

The building remains isolated in an island surrounded by busy lanes of traffic, a good distance from other shopping. But new office buildings, hotels and restaurants have opened around it in recent years.

Bowser visited one of the company’s other signature stores last year during a visit to Silicon Valley and said she came away impressed at how open the space was to the public and the activity it generated around it.

“We were very careful about making sure that we brought back the historical society space and the very significant public benefit restoration of the Carnegie Library,” she said.

Not everyone is thrilled that a $900 billion company seems to be further encroaching on what used to be largely public places and ideas.

“I think this says so much about the corporate seizure of America as we know it,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, an advocacy group. “When we think about the town square concept, it’s in this cherished view of a place as a core element of a Democratic society. Apple’s ‘town squares’ are not going to be that. They’re going to be sanitized places for people to gather within the confines of commercialism.”

Perhaps it will end up somewhere in between. O’Brien, who has been with the company more than 30 years, was part of the team that dreamed up the first Apple store, which opened in 2001.

“It was a major shift for Apple, and we’re very thoughtful about how to do it in a way that will be successful,” she said. Despite all that has changed since then, she thinks the retail locations still stand for the same thing: “What you see is the Apple logo. That’s what you get. You get Apple.”