September 17, 2018

Homogeneity vs Independence: Waterstones buys UK indie chain Foyles


Has the face of independent bookselling in the UK just got smaller?

Foyles (or to give the company its formal name, W & G Foyle Ltd) is a family-owner book chain. It was founded in 1903 by the Foyle brothers, William and Gilbert, after their fledging home business selling second-hand books took off. They opened their first store in Peckham, South London, and by 1910 they had a further four branches in suburban London, settling into their central London headquarters on Charing Cross Road. Success was enjoyed by all.

In the 1930s, Christina, daughter of William, initiated Foyles Literary Lunches at the Charing Cross Road store, which became legendary. Let’s take a moment to dwell on the formidable figure that is Christina Foyle. She took control of the Charing Cross branch in 1945 (at the time, Europe’s biggest bookshop). During a period of fierce retail competition, she kept the chain alive. However, her methods were…. questionable, as Dennis Barker wrote for the Guardian upon her death in 1999:

“Her style of management, as she assumed increasing control of the bookshop, was paternalistic and autocratic. As assistants she employed a large floating population of youngsters who often seemed to learn English and book titles on the job. She paid them the worst wages outside the catering industry but often entertained them at her large country home, an abbey inherited from her father in Essex.

As book trade unions flexed their muscles in the 1960s, she fought a determined rearguard action. One young assistant/guest she had entertained over the weekend joined a strike for higher wages on the following Monday morning. He was given his cards and Miss Foyle never spoke to him again, though he annually approached her at the Frankfurt book fair in the hope of a reconciliation.”

She also instituted the most frustrating payment system ever: as she did not trust staff to handle money, customers had to collect an invoice for a book, then queue up to pay the invoice and finally queue again to collect their book. A wonder of efficiency. That’s if they could find the book they wanted in the first place: forget this shelving by author and category nonsense, Christina shelved by publisher. The store stayed open, but sales were dropping by 20% a year. Even Hitler was intimidated by her. ADOLF HITLER. As Barker wrote for the Guardian:

“She once rebuked Hitler, newly in power in Germany, for having Jewish books burned. She offered to buy them instead. Hitler declined, but was careful to couch the refusal in extremely diplomatic terms.”

It is safe to say Christina would NOT have approved of the recent sale of Foyles to Waterstones, the UK’s biggest book chain, which was announced last week.

Upon her death, Christina’s nephew Christopher Foyle took over. The chain now has seven stores across the UK: four in London, one in Chelmsford, one in Bristol, and one in Birmingham. Christopher has taken a backseat, living in Monaco and hiring staff to run things for him. However, unfortunately the chain’s fortunes seem to have been dwindling of late: the Guardian’s Zoe Wood reported earlier this year that the shop has made a loss of £88,791 loss on sales of £26.6m in 2017.

So if the company is on the wane, a deal to ensure stores stay open rather than having to permanently close surely has to be a good thing, doesn’t it?

On announcement of the sale, Foyles put out a press statement saying:

“We have been determined to ensure that the buyer would both preserve and invest in the business. James Daunt, the Managing Director of Waterstones, has assured us of his desire to maintain and celebrate the Foyles name and our distinct bookselling identity. Whilst the decision to sell has been a hard one, we are confident that Waterstones will nurture and protect Foyles for the good of the business, its staff and its customers.”

James Daunt knows bookselling and has helped to bring Waterstones back to profit after years of being in the red. He told Benedicte Page and Philip Jones at the Bookseller:

“It is an exciting and invigorating time in bookselling as good bookshops are rediscovering their purpose in the fight back against online and e-reading.  At Waterstones, we see our future as responsible stewards of shops that strive to serve their customers each according to their own distinct personality.  This is nowhere more important than with those shops – Hatchards, Hodges Figgis and now Foyles – that have such singular heritages.

“The Foyles booksellers join a company that celebrates the traditional virtues of Foyles bookselling as equally as it does the illustrious history of Foyles itself.  We take on this responsibility with pride and confidence and are committed to ensuring Foyles a future as bright as its past.”

Soon far, so positive. Main opposition to the deal has been from those fearing Foyles will lose its identity. Staff are experienced and respected – in fact Melville’s own Tom Clayton used to work for the chain, as did our author Marion Rankine. While Waterstones has 283 stores, it has just one fiction buyer (who has now left with no news on the cards as to his replacement). Foyles has several employees working on fiction buying, with only seven stores. How will these differing staff priorities mesh when Waterstones take over?

Daunt told The Bookseller that:

“he was a big fan of the business “as a fellow London bookseller” and owner of rival indie Daunt Books. “I am excited and respectful of the history.” But he added that taking advantage of Waterstones’ buying power and its centralised services, such as the hub, would enable the bookseller to shore up its future.”

Confident words from Daunt, but centralised buying is exactly what indie publishers fear. Putting the power in the hands of the few does not allow chances to be taken and creativity to flourish. Walk into a branch of Waterstones and you will largely see homogeny: the same books in the same position as any other branch. Look at the homepage of their website and they are highlighting all the usual bestsellers, largely by brand name authors. The Foyles website has a much wider and varied selection of books highlighted. And their stores, while of course having to push and promote the bestsellers, also actively push more unlikely sellers, helping to nurture them. Will they still be allowed to do so when they forced to take advantage of ‘Waterstones’ buying power and its centralised services’?

Waterstones itself has only recently been sold to private investment firm Elliott Advisors, as we wrote about back in April. As Page and Jones reported for the Bookseller:

“Daunt said there had been no pressure on him since Waterstones’ sale to Elliott Advisers to grow the business, and that he had been approached by Foyles to acquire the company. He said he would not seek to appoint a new m.d. for the company, but allow individual stores to manage themselves, as is the case across its estate.”

‘Expanding’ so quickly certainly shows a strong hand after uncertainty due to the buyout. Daunt continued to tell the Bookseller:

“We are honoured to be entrusted with the Foyles business, and greatly look forward to joining forces with the Foyles bookselling team.  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.”

Challenging Amazon’s monopoly in any way possible is something we should all be fighting for. But is building a second monopoly really the way to go? Waterstones is already the only dedicated bookshop chain left in the UK. Is it going to be an Amazon vs Waterstones fight to the death, while other independent shops lie wounded and bleeding on the battlefield?

For Foyles at least, and for Christopher Foyle who sought out this sale, it secures the future of the chain, for now. We hope it will flourish under its new ownership, as Daunt seems to be promising, and maintain those qualities that publishers and book lovers have so come to admire from the store.

Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.