It’s not the end of the world as we know it

It’s taken me many days to get round to commenting on this (one day I’ll get a scoop), but it can have passed the attention of no one who cares about books that the financial travails of parent company HMV is going to lead to the closure of several branches of Waterstone’s Booksellers. When Tim Waterstone launched the company in 1982, there was essentially no such thing as high street, specialist bookselling, and it’s no coincidence that in this country the rise of Waterstone’s was in tandem with the rise of the big-selling literary novelists like Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan. A major chain that seemed to care about serious literature was something quite new, and its effect on the publishing landscape cannot be overestimated.

How things have changed. Inexorable, structural movements in publishing and perhaps in the public’s reading habits (there’s no reason why the public should escape the blame) have made the very concept of the high street bookseller increasingly redundant. The system is in flux, and a standardised model no longer works. Having overstretched itself, and having done its best to kill off the classic, old-school, drunken/hungover (but extremely knowledgeable) bookseller in exchange for students working split shifts and part time with no more knowledge about books other than what is force fed to them through management pep talks, Waterstone’s is going to have to close more than just the 11 or so stores it is going to sacrifice in the next few months. This time next year, I can confidently predict, a quarter of its branches will have closed, and many people will be out of a job.

Capitalism tends towards monopoly, and over the years Waterstone’s has edged out and absorbed its smaller rivals, or benefitted from the collapse of larger ones like Borders, without anything comparable rising up to take their place. Independent bookshops are so far still closing at a dramatic rate, and property rates are generally far too high for most independent booksellers to take the risk of opening a bricks-and-mortar shop. The teetering state of high street, specialist bookselling is generally blamed on the growth of the internet (probably true – I’ve been waiting three weeks for a book ordered through Waterstone’s abysmal ‘Hub’ system which I could have had in two days through Amazon, and which, crucially, I could have had in two days through Waterstone’s if they were still allowed to use Gardners or Bertrams). The encroachment of the big supermarkets into seemingly every aspect of human life has played its part too, with most chart bestsellers being easily and conveniently chucked in the trolley along with the week’s shopping.

I doubt there is any way a company like Waterstone’s could combat inexorable changes in the marketplace like this. It seems unavoidable that it will have to downscale massively, and either narrow its focus once more onto books (not board games, cards, stuffed toys and whatever else they peddle these days) or, more likely, expand their range of products so they come to seem more and more like WH Smiths. Crucial to the former approach will be a concentration on hiring proper booksellers, who feel that their job is valued and worthwhile, and who are properly remunerated for their skills and knowledge (and their ability to work an eight hour shift with a crippling hangover). I worked for Waterstone’s, and in other bookshops like John Smiths, for many years, and I would be horrified to see the company shrink any more than it has done. However, if it could be at the expense of its one-size-fits-all model, and if it could recapture the genuine passion for books it had in its heyday, this large-scale remodelling could very much work in its favour. Waterstone’s sells books, and even with the rise of the e-reader, there is no way books are going out of fashion. Companies like Waterstone’s can help create a public taste as well as mirror it. They’re not selling spats, or detachable collars, or running a high class milliners in an age where people no longer wear hats, for example. Nothing about their decline is inevitable, and although the morale of many of my bookseller friends around the country is low, there is no reason why, with judicial management and far-sighted vision, it couldn’t be much higher.

There is nothing else like Waterstone’s on the high street. It is the last chain standing that specialises in books, and if it is gone you would definitely miss it. Even if you do get most of your books from the internet.


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