June 15, 2018

Arise, Sir Tim, Lord of Bookshops: The founder of Waterstones has been knighted


I hope you sent a card. Last week was Queen Elizabeth’s “official” birthday! Her Royal Highness gets two birthdays: the actual day she was born (April 21st) and the second Saturday in June as an added extra. Why? The royal website explains:

Official celebrations to mark Sovereigns’ birthday have often been held on a day other than the actual birthday, particularly when the actual birthday has not been in the summer. King Edward VII, for example, was born on 9 November, but his official birthday was marked throughout his reign in May or June when there was a greater likelihood of good weather for the Birthday Parade, also known as Trooping the Colour.

The Queen usually spends her actual birthday privately, but the occasion is marked publicly by gun salutes in central London at midday: a 41 gun salute in Hyde Park, a 21 gun salute in Windsor Great Park and a 62 gun salute at the Tower of London. In 2006, Her Majesty celebrated her 80th Birthday in 2006 with a walkabout in the streets outside of Windsor Castle to meet well-wishers.

(Sounds like it might be time to hire a Royal Proofreader?)

So, what did she do this year? A round of musical chairs? Face painting? A McDonald’s party? We can only speculate… but she did knight a whole lotta people, including some literary greats. The Birthday Honours List “recognises the achievements of a wide range of extraordinary people across the United Kingdom.” This year, that included damehood for classicist Mary Beard and knighthoods for a knighthood for Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro, historian Simon Schama, and bookseller Tim Waterstone.

Waterstone, founder of the UK’s largest (and only) chain of bookstoresWaterstones, told Katherine Cowdrey of the Bookseller, “I’m feeling absolutely great about it… At the age of 79, it’s lovely to have a pat on the head like that. It’s all about Waterstones, it was a big thing in my life and it’s lovely… It was a complete surprise.”

We’ve written about Waterstones a lot, including its recent sale to Elliott Advisors. Waterstone founded the chain in 1982 and owned it until the late 1990s. Waterstone explained the philosophy that had led him to found the store in a 2010 interview with the Scotsman:

“At the heart of Waterstones was a great cultural aspiration to buy great bookshops for Britain. That makes me sound very saintly but it was also a really hard-run commercial operation. We weren’t looking for Arts Council funding. We were in it to make money and we did. It was both together and that’s the right way.”

In recent years, the chain’s fortunes have seriously floundered. Waterstones has certainly changed the bookselling landscape in the UK. Without it, the British literary landscape would be a much smaller, sadder place. However, Waterstones has also undoubtably helped drive some independent bookshops out of business, and does not play nicely with small publishers anymore. The balance between Waterstone once spoke of between culture and commerce seems to have tipped toward the latter. This is probably a necessity, if the chain is to redeem its flailing fortunes in recent years, but it’s a shame this comes at the cost of supporting and nurturing new talent.

So congratulations, Tim Waterstone, on this recognition of your bookselling legacy. That, perhaps, is worth celebrating. The current state of the empire, however, may not deserve honouring, at least from a small independent publisher’s point of view. The story of course continues, and we have yet to see how this new chapter under new authors will play out.

(Pssstt… pretty much anyone can receive an honour from the Queen, British or not. If they’re awesome enough. You can nominate yourself and your chums here. Though David Bowie and Stephen Hawking turned down knighthoods — so maybe give it some thought first.)



Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.