August 28, 2012

A nation of (book)shopkeepers?


With this post we introduce our new UK correspondent Euan Hirst, of Blackwell’s in Oxford, England, one of Britain’s leading bookstores. Our goal in asking Euan to join MobyLives is to provide useful commentary on the state of bookselling in the UK, and to celebrate Blackwell’s longstanding contribution to independent literature. Happy reading.

My name is Euan and I run Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford, England. We have been selling books from this location since 1879 and whilst we are part of a chain (of mainly campus bookshops) we consider ourselves independent. We choose which books to put on our shelves and which ones to promote; this, I believe, is the true measure of independence.

I will be blogging here on a semi-regular basis and hope to offer you a perspective from the UK bookselling scene that will inform, perhaps encourage and may even occasionally inspire you to keep the faith in what I call proper bookselling — physical, stock holding, opinionated, book-loving bookshops.

For my first blog post I thought that I would share some of my thoughts about Waterstones, comfortably the largest and most influential chain bookseller that we have in Britain. It is necessarily a truncated history but I write it as a huge fan of their early years when they changed the book trade immeasurably for the better.

It was, allegedly, that implacable enemy of Britain, Napoleon who sought to disparage our nation with the phrase used in the title. A phrase that we have reclaimed, polished and now wear as a crown. With the demise of our manufacturing base, the growth and dramatic collapse of our financial community it has been shopping that has become, not only the favourite past time, but also the pillar on which our economy is based.

As the transformation from maker to consumer society gathered pace in the 1980s bookselling in the UK got a fair share of this newly expanding pie. When Tim Waterstone founded his first eponymous bookshop on the Old Brompton Road in 1981 it ushered in a new era where bookshops became visible on the best shopping streets in towns and cities up and down the land for the first time. Dammit, bookselling was sexy. And this was proper bookselling — shops staffed and managed by young men and women who were turned on by quality writing. From time to time, as observed bitingly by a Borders executive, the British attitude to customer service was ‘Fuck you very much’ but there was no doubting the passion and commitment to the very best writing that oozed out of these plush new bookshops. Stock budgets were a mere guide, plannograms were the stuff of science fiction. Upon entering them you would be more likely to see an enormous pile of Primo Levi than Tom Clancy. Handpicked personal favourites were the order of the day.

We even had our own version of the B&N vs Borders space race as Waterstones and Dillons competed for prime locations in City centres — often opening up next to each other. The book-lover had never had such riches laid before them.

And then it all sort of went wrong.

Waterstones was sold to WH Smith — a centralized business that took away the local autonomy and passion. Dillons hit the buffers as the periods of free-rent that many of their shops opened with came back to bite them. In a move that sent shock waves through the British book trade Waterstones and Dillons were parceled up and bought by HMV — the major High St music chain. Sales, at first, remained good but any remaining soul was sucked out of the shops. Great managers and great booksellers were lost to the trade as homogeneity became the God that must be obeyed.

And then the market turned as the Net Book Agreement was cast aside.

Amazon arrived on the scene and did what they do — sell new books as a marketing cost. Supermarkets decided that they could profitably skim the top of the pie by selling a handful of the guaranteed bestsellers at small margins. Borders decided to open shops in the UK and found a new, younger customer in thrall to their big, bold, multimedia shops. And whilst this assault was happening our ‘Book Champion on the High St’ was caught in the doldrums, unable to chart an appropriately profitable course and ignoring the independence in their DNA that had been their lifeblood for years. HMV continued their ownership for a number of years, buying the innovative Ottokars chain to try and prop up the numbers but they never seemed to ‘get’ the business that they bought. We started to call Waterstones HMV Books — not a ringing endorsement!

As their core business of music CDs got slaughtered by digital HMV eventually gave up the ghost and sold Waterstones to Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut. Every single book trade commentator was wrong-footed when he announced the man to run the chain; James Daunt. Daunt had carved a fantastic niche with his seven-branch eponymous chain in some of the more affluent areas of London. Even in Oxford we could hear the weeping relief of publishing executives as this was announced. The saviour! A man who cherished books! A man who sold books at their full cover price!

It has been just over two years since Daunt took the reigns. The initial wave of optimism has turned into a tsunami of disappointment. His public statements sound like the right thing to say — more local autonomy, don’t be afraid to sell at full-price but the reality you see with your own eyes does not match the rhetoric — bureaucratic buying structures, partnering with Amazon to sell Kindles. The long-suffering staff still suffer, constricted from doing what they would love to do by ‘policy’.

This saddens me greatly — not just because I remember what a truly great bookselling chain Waterstones was, but because we, indeed all indies, need a Champion on the High St. A champion to encourage the habit of readers to still see the value that bricks and mortar and paper has over online and digital. A champion to find the new literary sensations of tomorrow and to introduce them to the thirsty readers of today. A champion of books and proper bookselling.

There is a silver lining to this sad tale — some of these great booksellers went on to set up their own independent bookshops such as Topping’s of Ely, Jaffe and Neale in Chipping Norton, The Yellow Lighted Bookshop in Tetbury.

I have competed against Waterstones for most of my adult life. I have been a customerof theirs on countless occasions. I have nicked some of their best ideas and used them in my shop. I ache for them to succeed and thrive on a personal and professional level. And they could, if they could just release their booksellers to be booksellers and to remember the spirit of trust and adventure that made their early years so exhilarating.


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Please note: the opinons expressed in this series are Mr. Hirst’s, and are not necessarily shared by Blackwell’s bookstore.