Tim Waterstone - the great disrupter

Will Atkinson
Opinion - Bookselling Monday, 11 June 2018

Will Atkinson, who worked at Waterstones in the early days, recalls the heady era of the chain's expansion under his former boss, knighted in the Birthday Honours

I worked for Waterstones from 1985 to 1994. Like many of my colleagues I was just out of university, looking for interesting and meaningful work. There were five shops at the time, with Edinburgh on the way. Tim hired everyone at that point, so it was he who interviewed me.

The trade before Waterstones was timid and stuffy. Along with Allen Lane and Peter Mayer, Tim Waterstone was the great disrupter of our industry of the last century, and disrupt we did. We sold books when they came in before publication ("early selling"), opened on Sundays, brought authors in to talk - not just sign - in our shops, ordered, sold and sometimes returned huge quantities of books. We went to every publisher's party we were invited to, crashed some, and tried to sell even more books the next day. We were judged on sales per square foot and quality of stock. We were arrogant, competitive and utterly sure of what we were doing. We were loved by publishers and loathed by the bookselling trade - one delegate from Waterstones was booed at a BA conference when he announced where he was from.

The staff rooms could resemble a senior common room rather than a sanctuary from the shop floor. In our heads we weren't retailers. In my final job, at Hampstead, my team comprised a pop musician who had a gold disc, two theatre actor/producers, a film director, a screenwriter, two composers - and a few professional booksellers.

Tim made all this happen. He provided the sureness of purpose, and backed us to the hilt and beyond. He was always encouraging and rarely critical, believing that we would work out our mistakes given time – and mostly we did. His remorseless drive ensured that we didn't have to worry about the investment going into the company, and ensured more shops, more promotion, more staff, more colleagues, more books sold.

If you were any good you were promoted quickly - it was all internal promotion. At a very young age we were given extraordinary responsibility for money, stock and people. Tim gave us 100% and we gave back double.

At the age of 26, I stocked a shop with over a million pounds of stock – no epos, no core stock, just publisher catalogues and a remit to make it the best bookshop in the area. It never happened, but I imagine Tim at Paddington sending me off to go forth and conquer Cheltenham, and of course we did. Three bookshops closed within weeks of our arrival. That's disruption for you.

Will Atkinson is md and publisher at Atlantic Books.

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