Putting pride back into bookselling
BookBrunch talks to James Daunt about Waterstones' new makeover, major investment in staff training, and plans for the future.For publishers, much depends on the last quarter of the year. So, too, booksellers, but perhaps none more so than Waterstones, Britain's last remaining bookshop chain, which must this year prove that it is, in that over-used phrase, fit for purpose. If Waterstones, in a desperate state of decline for so many years as part of the (perhaps terminally) ailing HMV Group, can sell a lot of books, not only will publishers breathe easy but confidence in what was once one of the country's best-loved brands will be restored.
For a man under pressure, Managing Director James Daunt is remarkably calm. He's rushed home early from visits to three disparately placed stores (the travelling time used for a meeting with whoever is in the passenger seat of his car) to pick up his younger daughter from school - his wife's at a conference. Over freshly brewed coffee, he sits down to chat in a room whose cosy, lived-in feel is a reminder of London NW3 before the bankers and TV celebs took over.
It's almost 30 years to the day since Tim Waterstone launched his mould-breaking chain in Kensington's Old Brompton Road, beginning a revolution in bookselling. There are now some 300 stores in the estate, and refits are proceeding apace. "We've done an old Waterstone's in Brighton, a Dillons on Argyll Street in Glasgow, an Ottakar's in Norwich and a Hammick's in St Alban's. They're representative of four generic types in the estate, so proving a solution ready to roll out for any shop. The look will be unified, but we're working with the fabric of each individual building so that we have the best bookshop in each place. We've been clever, and the effect has been very successful without costing too much."
So, a makeover that isn't cheap but won't break the bank, for very obvious reasons. Other changes are happening: cafés are being installed in stores where Costa, Waterstones' franchise partner, won't go. "For example," Daunt continues, "Sutton had a café, but Costa withdrew because they couldn't make it pay. But if booksellers make the cappuccino it works well. The café drives people, and as a result you sell many more books. We've opened six, and they've all been fantastic."
Booksellers as barristas then! It's a skill that falls outside the Waterstones Academy, a major investment in staff training. "We're trying to put some pride back into the trade and into the profession. It's been so debased and devalued. I've plied the trade of a bookseller - I was proud to describe myself as such at dinner parties - but it became something that meant you were a failure in some way: what are you going to do next?" Once, Waterstones was stuffed with bright sparks working on novels or PhDs, but, with the chain run by a former grocer, books were treated liked the proverbial baked beans. With staff forced to work to checklists and planograms instead of being allowed to do use their literary initiative - in short, to be booksellers - the enthusiasm (and sometimes the calibre) of that staff was dissipated.
"Given how difficult our job is and how intellectually demanding if you do it well, if we're going to train up a new generation of booksellers then we need to invest. One of the problems was that you'd only earn more money if you followed a career path that turned you into a manager. An absolutely brilliant bookseller may well be a dreadful manager. You end up saying, "f you want to be paid more, stop doing what you're brilliant at front-of-store and go and sit in an office. All that needs to be changed." For those who have a vocation that's good news - and should ensure that the in-store experience beats online into a cocked hat.
Which brings us to Amazon, which has dictated that the Kindle will be launched in-store on 25 October. Every branch will sell them, though from a relatively small corner ("customers know exactly what a digital e-reader is"), and staff have been trained. The Kindle is, he believes, "the best product to put before our customers", and one of his first moves on arriving last summer was to desist with the ragbag of devices the chain was half-heartedly selling.
But didn't Daunt once describe Amazon as "a ruthless money-making devil"? He chuckles. "The essence is right if not the words. Look, Amazon wants to sell a lot of books. I continue to believe that it's a huge competitor of ours. But I hold my fate within my own hands. If I have god-awful shops which are not particularly pleasing environments and the prices are poor, I'm going to lose the customer. If we play to our strengths, create lovely environments which are places of relaxation, leisure and enjoyment, where people want to spend their time - well, Amazon can't do that. Waterstones discounts quite heavily and is able to compete with Amazon if it retails well and earns the loyalty of its customers - and that's what it had been failing to do. Waterstones hadn't been run by a bookseller for a very long time. My predecessors produced increasingly poor shops and customers deserted them."
Under Daunt, a widely admired bookseller, there is "a culture of commitment. The good people were still there - but they weren't running the company. If you run your own bookshop and you're interacting with customers, it's a fabulous job. But that wasn't what they'd been doing."
So is Daunt's new boss happy with the way things are going? The Managing Director in whose steady hands so much rests points out that Alexander Mamut, a long-time customer of Daunt Books, lives in Moscow and isn't here that much, but yes, he's pleased. Was it a big decision to step back from the chain he founded and had so lovingly created to take on the nightmare that was Waterstones? He turns slightly mischievous. "Waterstones was about to disappear and I don't think that was going to be great for the British book trade. I'm not sure how Daunt Books was going to survive in that environment. Random House doesn't run a warehouse to supply the likes of Daunts - it's to supply Waterstones. Where would we have been a year on from there being no Waterstones? I don't know."
A thought bubble seems to hang over Daunt's head. "Waterstones not being there was going to be extremely damaging to our ecosystem. A world of supermarkets and online would have been a pretty bleak one. Independents would have found it very hard to do carry on. The writing was on the wall for a very long time. Somebody had to do something."
Photo by Jon Enoch