Thursday, November 26, 2009

You don't need to shop at Waterstone's to appreciate it
It may not have been an unmixed blessing to bookselling, but its original staff continue to invigorate the trade – just not necessarily at Waterstone's

Guardian blog, Posted by Peter Robins Wednesday 25 November 2009

If Waterstone's is implicated in the death of a certain sort of traditional bookshop – by helping, as Stuart Jeffries argued in his recent phillipic, to break the Net Book Agreement, and by simply being more commercially savvy – then might it also have given rise to a new generation of independent shops?

Two things brought this question to my mind. One was the man who supplied some of Jeffries's most quotable ammunition: Nicholas Spice, of the London Review of Books, which created the London Review Bookshop. Scornful as he is of the modern Waterstone's, he speaks nostalgically of its early days – and, indeed, when the London Review Bookshop was starting out it advertised the early-Waterstone's credentials of its manager.

The other thing was a reminiscence by Simon Key on the blog of his Big Green Bookshop:

"In my early days at Waterstone's we were each given responsibility for different areas of the shop and it was our job, as booksellers, to decide which titles were stocked on the shelves. Obviously, this kind of responsibility wasn't given lightly and you had to prove you understood the idea of budgeting and marketing before you could fully take over an area of the shop. You were also responsible for returning books that didn't sell, displaying the books within whatever framework Waterstone's was working on at the time, and essentially ensuring that your area of the shop was as profitable as it could be. However, the satisfaction that I got from finding a book with potential, ordering a pile for the table, or three or four copies to face out on the bookshelves and watching it sell was immense, and it's one of the reasons why I enjoy doing what I do so much."

Does that not sound like the best possible training for the proprietor of an independent bookshop? And how better could they encourage you to strike out on your own than by taking all that responsibility away? (Well, they could close your branch and leave your area without a bookshop, which is what happened to Key.)

As Waterstone's has developed from a fast-growing chain that focused hard on the most frequent book-buyers, to become a dominant player squeezing maximum efficiency from a mature market, it may also have left a little niche for former employees to exploit. That new demand for books that its former MD Tim Coates says it helped create; that expectation of friendly, super-knowledgeable staff and an environment you want to hang about in – other people can use those, too.

The only problem is that bookselling is now so tricky that even the very good can perish. It's hard to imagine any high-street newcomer will shake up Waterstone's as thoroughly as it once did the established players. But there are still plenty of indies – smart post-Net Book Agreement ones, with cleverly tailored stock and staff capable of making eye contact – which draw on Waterstone's experience. That 1980s bookselling revolution lives on. Just not only in the shops that started it.
More at The Guardian.

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