March 1, 2022
End of an era: Waterstones to extend high street domination after acquiring bookshop chain Blackwell’s
by Nikki Griffiths
A 143 year legacy will soon be coming to an end after it was announced this week that Waterstones has bought Blackwell’s, the UK’s biggest independent bookshop chain.
We recently wrote about the uncertainty and lack of stability, due to COVID, that caused the family-owned company to seek new investment. Now, as largely foreseen, Blackwell’s has accepted a buy-out in the “low single-digit millions” according to a source quoted in the Financial Times, which will mean that Waterstones, Barnes & Noble, Foyles and Blackwell’s will all belong to the US hedge fund company Elliott Investment Management.
On the acquisition, Blackwell’s owner and president Toby Blackwell said, as reported by The Bookseller:
“After 143 years of family ownership, finding a new home for our business and our wonderful booksellers, has been an extraordinary challenge. Waterstones have demonstrated in their acquisition of Foyles most recently, that they understand the advantages and benefits of holding diverse iconic bookselling brands in their portfolio. I view them not just as a buyer of the business, but as the right buyer at the right time. This is a positive outcome for Waterstones, Blackwell’s and all our customers in the UK and abroad, who will still be able to enjoy the individual nature of what both brands offer. I would like to thank our chairman and board and all of our fantastic staff, past and present, for everything they’ve done to uphold the Blackwell’s name over the years. I wish everyone well with this new chapter.”
Waterstones’ managing director James Daunt said:
“Blackwell’s and Heffers are amongst the most illustrious names in bookselling, a legacy for which we have the utmost respect.
“We greatly look forward to working alongside the booksellers at Blackwell’s as we secure the future of these wonderful bookshops and preserve academic bookselling in so many towns and campuses across the UK.”
To many, ensuring that Blackwell’s continues to operate and thrive is a welcome relief, rather than seeing its 18 shops around the UK being forced to close. James Daunt has long made clear his position on Waterstones and physical bookshops needing to stand ground against the online threat of Amazon. Back in 2018 when Waterstones acquired another beloved independent bookshop chain, Foyles, he said:
“Together, we will be stronger and better positioned to protect and champion the pleasures of real bookshops in the face of Amazon’s siren call.
“It is an exciting and invigorating time in bookselling as good bookshops are rediscovering their purpose in the fightback against online and e-reading.”
As Waterstones continues its fightback, there is also critical opposition and concern over the its latest acquisition. Is it healthy to have one online monopoly (Amazon) battling against one high street monopoly (Waterstones)? Marie Moser, owner of The Edinburgh Bookshop told The Bookseller:
“No one wants to see fewer physical bookshops but, with Waterstones already owning Foyles, it could be argued that they will have an effective high street monopoly, and I’m not sure this would be allowed in other retail sectors.”
A similar view was echoed by Hazel Broadfoot, manager at Village Books in Dulwich, south London, who said:
“I’d be sorry to see Blackwell’s lose its independence… I think Waterstones are a force for good in the book trade, and essential to the health of our high streets. However, I’d prefer not to see more erosion of the independent sector, with all that brings in the further polarisation of power between a very few large retailers, and the body of smaller independents.”
David Prescott, Blackwell’s CEO who will remain in his role, has said that all Blackwell’s staff will keep their jobs and the company will retain its name. He told The Bookseller:
“Blackwell’s is cherished by its customers for its brilliant booksellers and the unique position it holds in the bookselling landscape. Waterstones’ acquisition will ensure that the future of Blackwell’s and its booksellers is secure. Waterstones have outlined their commitment to invest in our people, our shops and in our growing e-commerce operation. Their acquisition will ensure that Blackwell’s remains part of the bookselling landscape for the long term.”
What will only become clear, as time unfolds, is if stores will retain their personality and autonomy. Under a large, umbrella company, will we see a streamlining of books and homogeny between stores? Paul Sweetman, from City Books in Hove, told The Bookseller of his fear that “Central buying will inevitably bring more blandness to the high street.”
Jo Coldwell of Red Lion Book in Colchester expressed her concern over Waterstones’ buying power. With such a dominance over the high street, the company can command and demand special deals and discounts from publishers. These are deals that indie publishers often cannot afford to agree to, and deals that can price indie bookshops out of business. Coldwell told The Bookseller:
“How [will] that affect people lower down the chain — like indies, when customers see better deals elsewhere?
“We trust that publishing houses still recognise the collective importance of an indie and continue to offer us indie exclusives.”
While we can take a moment to be thankful Blackwell’s will remain, let’s also make sure we recognise the importance of independent bookshops, the importance of choice and the importance of community.
Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.