Dom Knigi, which means ‘House of Books’ in Russian, is the oldest, largest and most famous bookshop in St Petersburg. It has long been a focal point of cultural and intellectual life in the city, and is housed in the Singer Building, a masterpiece of Art Nouveau architecture located in the heart of St Petersburg. For lovers of architecture and literature alike, a visit to Dom Knigi and the Singer Building should not be missed.
In 1902, the Singer sewing machine company opened a factory in Podolsk, near Moscow. Soon after, the American company commissioned Ernest Flagg, architect of New York’s Singer skyscraper, to design the company’s Russian headquarters in St Petersburg. Flagg’s work was continued by renowned Russian architect Pavel Suzor, who is considered to be the creator of the Singer Building. The 11-storey building which the Singer company desired was unfeasible, as height restrictions in St Petersburg stipulated that no building, except a church, could exceed the height of the Winter Palace. However, Suzor subverted these regulations by erecting a glass tower topped with a 2.8-metre glass globe above the 7th-floor, which would be lit from inside with electric lamps. The Singer Building was opened in 1904.
Did you know? The globe of the Singer Building lies directly on the Pulkovo Meridian, which is measured from the Pulkovo Observatory near the airport and was the point of geographical longitude for all maps in the Russian Empire. It has the ‘most land’ of all the world’s meridians, passing from Norway to South Africa over very little water!
The Singer Building’s lower storeys were home to the St Petersburg Private Commercial Bank from 1904-1911, and later to the American Embassy from 1914-1917. Sewing workshops were located on the floors above, which later supplied huge numbers of military uniforms to the Russian army during the First World War.
Did you know? The Singer company’s reputation suffered during the First World War. Aware that anti-German sentiment was brewing in Russian society, a disgruntled former employee spread rumours to the press and government that the Singer company was engaged in espionage for Germany. Military raids and state investigations were subsequently carried out against Singer, and the population remained deeply suspicious of the company for years afterwards.
After the October Revolution the Singer Building was initially used as a book warehouse. But following a boom in printing and publishing, one of the first Soviet publishing houses, Petrogosizdat, was established in the Singer building on 19th December 1919 – and Dom Knigi was born.
Dom Knigi began to flourish during the 1920s, as the state book trade was in full force as a form of mass propaganda. In the early 1920s music and foreign literature departments were founded in the bookshop which occupied the two bottom storeys of the Singer Building, and Dom Knigi also began organising book markets throughout the 1930s and 1940s to celebrate the Day of Printing. A number of publishers operated on the upper floors over the years, including publishing houses Detgiz (Children’s Publishing House), Prosveshchenie (Enlightenment) Iskusstvo (Art), and Sovetskiy Pisatel (Soviet Writer), and journals Kniga i Revolutsiya (The Book and the Revolution) and Literaturnye Shtudii (Literary Studies).
Did you know? Dom Knigi continued to trade during the Siege of Leningrad, even when the neighbouring building suffered a direct bomb hit in 1941 which blew out all of the Singer building’s windows.
Dom Knigi reopened in 1948 following renovation. It was not only a bookshop, but a cultural base for Leningrad’s residents. Its annual book market under the slogan ‘A book is the best gift!’ provided thousands upon thousands of people with books every year, literary readings and author lectures were regularly arranged, special sales and exhibitions were organised for thematic events, and the weekly ‘Calendar of Novelties’ reviewed newly-published books for literature lovers.
The Singer Building underwent significant reconstruction between 2004 and 2006, which included the $1m restoration of the central staircase, made entirely from Italian marble! Since 2011, the top five storeys of the Singer Building have been occupied by the headquarters of Vkontakte, the Russian version of Facebook, whilst Dom Knigi remains in the bottom two floors of the building.
The Singer Building is one of St Petersburg’s architectural masterpieces, and was a technological phenomenon for its time. It was the first building in the city to be built around a steel frame, which allowed for the construction of huge windows and a glass-ceilinged atrium in the central courtyard, flooding the building with light. What’s more, the latest technology equipped the Singer Building with lifts, central heating and ventilation, and a steam system to remove snow from the roof.
The enchanting Art Nouveau design of the Singer Building distinguishes it from its neighbours. The bottom two storeys are faced with red granite and the next five floors with grey granite. The façade is adorned with natural and floral motifs forged in bronze. Tendrils creep up the glass tower atop the building, and the glass globe crowning the Singer Building was designed to represent the global ambitions of the Singer company. An American eagle sits on the corner of the Singer Building, installed during the First World War to emphasise the American roots of the company in the face of anti-German sentiment affecting Singer’s reputation. Bronze figures of Valkyries – warrior maidens from Scandinavian mythology – frame the windows; one holds a harpoon (symbolising heavy industry and trade), and another holds a sewing machine and a spindle (symbolising light industry).
To discover other Art Nouveau masterpieces in St Petersburg, check out our article.
The interior is just as beautiful and luxurious as the exterior. There was no expense spared by the designers, who installed a central staircase crafted from Carrara marble, gold leaf embellishments, crystal lamps, a mosaic floor, five storeys of colourful glazed tiles facing the inner courtyard, doors and frames made from solid oak, and ornate wrought bronze – all of which have been beautifully restored.
Did you know? The Vkontakte office has an internal application which allows them to change the colour of the lights inside the Singer Building dome – for example, with the colours of national flags of the winning teams in the 2018 World Cup.
The bottom two floors of the Singer Building are occupied by Dom Knigi, one of the largest bookshops in Europe which stocks a vast array of books for all interests. For visitors to St Petersburg, Dom Knigi is great for souvenir and coffee table books of Russian history and culture, guidebooks, dual-language books or textbooks for those who want to learn some Russian, and English-language translations of Russian classics. The bookshop offers a large selection of souvenirs including postcards, magnets, confectionary, calendars, home decoration, porcelain, accessories, and folk handicrafts.
For advice on the best gifts to bring back from Russia, click here.
Dom Knigi is home to the elegant Café Singer, which serves a good selection of Russian and European dishes. Café Singer is the ideal spot for a hot drink after browsing Dom Knigi, or for breakfast with a view before a day’s sightseeing at the nearby museums and churches. The best seat in the house is by the enormous Art Nouveau windows overlooking Nevsky Prospekt and the Kazan Cathedral – it’s worth booking a table!
For more recommendations on where to eat in St Petersburg, read our article.
Essential information for visitors
Dom Knigi, Nevsky Prospekt, 28, St Petersburg, 191186
Telephone: +7 (812) 448 23 55
Nearest metro: Nevsky Prospekt (80m), Gostiny Dvor (540m)
Opening hours: 9:00 – 23:00 daily
Join us on Facebook
We invite you to become a fan of our company on Facebook and read Russian news and travel stories. To become a fan, click here.
Join our own Russian Travel, Culture and Literature Club on Facebook. The club was created to be a place for everyone with an interest in Russia to get to know each other and share experiences, stories, pictures and advice. To join our club, please follow this link.