Back in the eighties, Waterstone’s was my dream bookshop. Finally I got to go to a shop that was relaxing to visit, was designed to enable extended browsing and didn’t sell anything but books (and enough coffee and cake to let you stay and lust after the books for a little bit longer).
The shops, with their black walls and soft sofas and their knowledgeable staff were a world away from the we’re a newsagent/sweetshop that also sells books feel of WH Smiths. When I went to Waterstone’s I visited a place where books were a passion that the staff shared. They were something to be admired and discussed and lusted after. They were a fine meal and a glass of good wine, not a burger-in-a-box and a chemical shake.
A few months ago I was back in the UK and I went to the stylish new Waterstone’s shop in Liverpool One. Although the heritage of the brand image was still there, a few moments inside the shop showed me that attitude to books and readers had completely changed. This was no longer a place for book lovers to swoon over the tempting choices in front of them. In this shop, books were no longer objects of desire; they were commodities to stack high and sell cheap.
As a customer I was encouraged, not to find the book of my dreams, but to find three books that I could take to the counter at the same time so that I would only have to pay for two of them.
Every book eligible for this offer (which seemed to be most of the ground floor) had been defaced by a garish orange sticker that announced to the world: ” I like this book, but not enough to pay full price for it.” Or perhaps, “I could only find two books I really wanted to read but this one had a sticker on it so I took it because it was free.” It’s a close as a bookshop can get to asking a customer to say, “Supersize me”.
The whole message was, “We all know no one values books anymore. Only an idiot would pay full price for a book. So we want promote not how good the book is but how much cheaper it becomes if you add two more books to it that you weren’t sure you wanted to buy.”
I know this is harsh. I know new authors often benefitted from being included in the 3for2 deal. I know Tesco sells bestsellers for almost nothing and Amazon will sell you second-hand copies that generate no income for author or publisher. I know that ebooks are hitting the genre readers and the recession has made things tighter BUT I’m sure that selling books as if they are packets of toile- roll is not the right answer.
I believe that, to survive, bricks and mortar bookshops need to become the delicatessen of the bookselling world. They should be staffed by people who care and they should attract people who love books and want to find the best. The true joy of the bookshop comes from the browse; from finding something wonderful and new or finding something hard to get or just being able to pick up the book you’ve been waiting for and peruse it a little before you embrace it and take it home.
I think new authors should be promoted on the quality of their books and not because you feel as if you’re not really paying for them. I think that books should be cheaper because I believe that they are only expensive because the industry is tied to inefficient publishing processes, archaic marketing and out-dated supply chain management.
So I was delighted to see that James Daunt of Daunt Books will be running Waterstone’s now that HMV have sold it. James Daunt’s bookshops look as if they should be in Diagonally. They are the Hogwarts of bookshops. They know how to evoke the magic of books. Seeing all those books massed on shelves, treated as objects of beauty and sources of joy, is a delight.
James Daunt reminds us that booksellers should sell books. That means they should know what the books are about and who will want them and they should help readers find them. Booksellers are the matchmakers between author and reader.
As of yesterday (31st August) Waterstone’s have stopped their 3for2 offers on books. It is rumoured that the scheme will be replaced by discounting individual books (£5 for books on promotion, £3, £5 and £7 for other paperbacks).
I look forward to Waterstone’s recovering the spirit that it used to have. I hope that Daunt can once more provide a home for book lovers and return the focus to the value each and every book has.
I wish him well.