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Does Waterstone’s really have a future?

May 23, 2011
Heffers Image

Waterstone's? Who needs it when you have great bookshops like Heffers in Cambridge

The announcement of the sale of  bookshop chain Waterstone’s to A&NN Capital Fund, headed by  Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut caused little surprise last week. After all, HMV as previous owner has been struggling for the last few years to understand the new dynamics in music and books retail. But does Waterstone’s really have a future?

Recently, I had the pleasure of two trips to Cambridge – one for business and the other for pleasure. The latter trip enabled me to enjoy a quick half hour in the refined atmosphere of Heffers, the academic and general book shop. What a privilege! And what a difference to any experience at Waterstone’s.

Heffers is a proper bookshop. Idiosyncratic. Erudite. Intellectual. Calming. And an adventure into a jungle of knowledge. I’d arranged to meet a friend in the history section and while waiting had managed to pick up a Chaucer volume, a copy of the mysterious Middle English classic, Pearl, and a dictionary of Middle English too.

When my friend turned up, his phone went. He was embarrassed. It was as if the silence of a library had been broken. In hushed tones he dismissed his caller and then we got to talking (or should I say whispering), as he introduced me to the joys a of a favourite poet of his. Better still, as a member of the Society of Authors, he generously treated me to a saving of 10% off my purchases! Ah, yes, this is a true bookselling experience…

Now, let’s turn to Waterstone’s. Here in the UK, we have become obsessed by brands and standardisation. Deviation from the norm, flaws in character, are somehow not acceptable. Hence the nonsensical (and now abandoned) Waterstone’s policy once known as “centralised buying”. A trip to Waterstone’s had become like a trip to Starbucks, or Costa, or some other “could be anywhere” brand experience that is today’s British high street.

In the words of Margaret Thatcher, “No… No… No.” While it is right that customers should expect consistency, there is an argument that consistency should not mean that everything is the same. The Waterstone’s experience is today just too bland. It is not a bookshop – it is a retail experience. And, as such, it has allowed the intellectualism of reading to be corroded by the battery acid which is commerce. The spell is broken. As in Chretien de Troyes’ Percival, the Grail will not pass its way again…

For Waterstone’s to have a future, it needs to rediscover itself. Buying books should not be about a “two for one”. Nor should it be about which publisher pays for the most space just to sell some odious and over-hyped memoir. A bookshop is a brand in itself. In the world of literature, idiosyncrasy is king. Oh, OK, as a fop to my B2B readers, content is king but idiosyncrasy is certainly queen.

But, here’s the rub. You cannot create idiosyncrasy deliberately. Just as on the web people can spot a pretender a mile off, so it is that a manufactured “brand” becomes detested. True idiosyncrasy is created by people. If Waterstone’s follows corporate lines at the expense of the joy that is humanity then I fear for its future.

But what’s the odd thing here? Let’s think about Heffers. It’s actually part of Blackwells. Yet it keeps its identity, its character, its charm. It was also listed in Top 50 British bookshops by the Independent newspaper too!

In the words of Mr Punch, “that’s the way to do it”…


(IMAGE: Heffers in Cambridge, courtesy of Blackwells website)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 23, 2011 1:00 pm

    Check out “Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights” in Bath. They were Independent Bookshop of the Year 2008 and you come up out with more than you went in for and always go back for more!

    Their USP? Service! And passion!

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