May 11

Stand by The Man

FT + The Brown Wedge10 comments • 924 views

In January HMV announced that, due to it and Waterstones collectively flailing around in a mire of doom, it’s going to close 60 stores this year. Gossiping with a bookseller last weekend I discovered Waterstones have had their ordering near-frozen -I’m not surprised, it was close to that when I worked for them nearly three years ago and it’s a bad sign. And now it transpires Waterstones might be sold to a Russian millionaire for less than a premiership striker.

Well good riddance then- corporate bookselling and corporate record chains that squeezed out the independents being killed off by even bigger corporate things. Awesome, now we can all ponce around pretending to buy things in idiot vanity projects like Lutyen and Rubenstein’s shop or whatever’s left of the independent record stores, whilst actually shuffling them all off Amazon. Brilliant, that sounds like exactly the sort of thing everyone can look forward to.

I can’t even avoid being sarcastic in the above three sentences of course. You know what’s going to really suck? Not having any bookshops in most small towns. Not having any record shops most likely, either. “Oh but it is all online, look at my oogly Kindle thing” you say- well, maybe, maybe, in ten years time but realistically it’s only now that physical music product is going and that’s a lot less tactile in its consumption anyway. Not to mention Amazon and Apple’s iBooks are hardly bastions of ethics for either the offer they extend to writers whose work they sell or the care they take for the books or their content.

Besides (and this is the big point) you might say “oh yes but this will lead to a rise of independent book/record sellers, The Man has fallen” but guys, no it won’t. If a big chain with big corporate credit can’t afford to keep a store open in your town, how is someone going to do it alone? The existing ones may stay open but there isn’t going to suddenly be a big surge towards them, anymore than there was when Borders closed. Even more fundamentally, if Waterstones/HMV group goes under then publishers will have to stop printing a great number of books; whether that number will be big enough that they have to stop entirely is a scary question and one I don’t want to see the grand experimental answer to. Kindle is coming but not that fast.

I’ll admit I’m massively biased here; I’m a former bookseller and of the two big corporate bodies I worked for, Waterstones was easily my favourite.* The one I worked in sits on the corner of Cornmarket and Broad Street in Oxford and is, to me, the platonic bookshop form. I spent hours poring over the contents of the basement children’s section as a tiny (when it had been a Dillon’s) and then later similar lengths of time haunting the sci-fi shelves as a young adult. When I got to work there it was the best and most awesome thing that had ever happened to my tiny book-obsessed mind and I think back on the time with a rosy-tinted belovedness that actually wasn’t probably the case as I mentally gnawed away at my Christmas temp’s minimum wage and fumbled copies of Robert Peston’s Big Book Of You’re Screwed. the thing of the things in itself

If I was to feel conspiracy theorist about it (and since I’m clearly already in an occult mood why not) then I might say that damn right RBS and Lloyds Banking Group ought to give HMV/Waterstones a break. I realise this argument has been made with a million things since 2008 but when the banks failed due to ridiculous behaviour, we rescued them.

Waterstones and Borders did spend far too long trying to kill each other. After years of invader/encumbent joshing, half-pricing and 3-for-2-ing so much as to make it a staple they began, like all cold rivals, to look like each other. The number of times I was handed a Borders loyalty stamp card and had to politely inform the customer that they were in the wrong shop was proof if the increasingly similar merchandising, shop layout and even staff uniform weren’t blatant enough. Waterstones was acquiring small numbers of DVDs, selling Nintendo DSs and some classical music, while HMV at one point ran more profit on books than its literary sister and Borders started to be… well, less American. Shorter shelving, more popular history and science titles, fewer import magazines and even making an effort to push people off their trend-fixing settees after a few hours. Some publishers did well out of it- Tokyopop in particular found its manga translations in both chains up and down the country and sleb tie-in creators Ebury (publishers of things like Nigella Lawson’s cookbooks and most autobiographies circa Xmas) had far more front-of-house displays to fill by the square metre with their stock.

Books Etc's "metro"-style bookshops never quite took off. The basic transactional migration of staff between the chains (long-term Waterstones employees often told me of The Time Before Borders, an age of wonder and full staffing) showed up what was happening though. Neither budged but there’s never really been space or demand for a bookselling hyperpower.

No loyalty card had more interchanged stamps than poor Books Etc.; passed around with all the ceremony of its eponymous elipsis, eight stores bought by Borders in 2008 became eight stores bought by Waterstones as Borders UK faltered for the final time and began the inexorable decline of any empire. The stuttery little Tesco Express of bookselling, Books Etc. was never going to have a good time of it- its size was comparable to independents, its coding corporate but it lacked the familiarity of WH Smiths for even train-journey purchases; the two bigger chains picked it up like some sort of principle, though.

While an honourable move to preserve bookshops and jobs, acquiring more stores (especially London stores with high rent, relatively low reputation and former rivalry with Waterstones) was probably a stretch too far for the ailing HMV group. Hubristic though it is to try and make sure there’s a bookshop on every high street, next to the designer plastic tat shops and clothes shops flogging shirts made in appalling conditions overseas it feels like one worth at least a small amount of approval by even the most cynical onlooker, though.

Bookshops are important, you see. Not to get all wibbly at you but you can’t just be casual about something with that much STUFF in it. I find it worrying enough that there’s a possibility for books to actually be entirely destroyed (albeit I’d make the exception that in the case of Malcolm Gladwell he’s got it coming) but the idea that entire SHOPS of books can be destroyed, that that whole structure could be lost, is outright creepy. Call me superstitious but there seems to be something fundamentally wrong with pulling apart shelves and shutting down the order, dismantling these great cathedrals to knowledge. Accessible knowledge- maybe not free, like a library but you can walk in and you can look at things and admire both the pleasure of their structure and their sensuality** and the lush, myriad constructions of them, jewelled beetles with 3 for 2 stickers.

And yes, a lot of them are trash. Many of them are even by Jeremy Clarkson but would anyone really rather they weren’t there at all? Which is why of course I think you should go out this lunchbreak and support your local bookshop.

Sappy? Yes but not melodramatic. If Waterstones and HMV die it’ll have a knock-on effect on almost every high street up and down the country. No more excited teenage discoveries or idle wandering that ends up picking up seven books on cheese manufacture. Yes, there will still be bookshops but Blackwell’s small chain isn’t going to hold the quantity of stock the publishers need to turn over to keep going and there isn’t going to be one on every street. Hate The Man by all means but if your alternative is going to be Amazon or the iBooks store then that’s no victory for anyone.

*The other hot shelves I slaved over belonged (mostly) to Foyles, whose cockroach qualities will ensure they are still trading long after the nuclear winter has fallen. They were 100% less fun than Waterstones (who give booksellers control to do things like draw the displays, design promotions and make christmas trees out of old posters) rather than enforcing corporate standards. Yes I have written that the right way round.
**I’m willing to hedge a bet that a sizeable chunk of the population takes a book to bed or has at least a stack of them in their bedroom. Not that books are sexualised (apart from in specific and obvious cases, M. de Sade) but you can blearily prop yourself up on them on your morning commute, carry them around like an anxiety blanket all day and aside from a bedsharing significant other or particularly tenacious pet they’re often the last thing you touch at night.


  1. 1
    ledge on 10 May 2011 #

    I spent hours poring over the contents of the basement children’s section as a tiny (when it had been a Dylan’s)

    I daresay you were tiny enough that spelling was not a concern – but it was Dillon’s, fwiw.

  2. 2
    Hazel on 10 May 2011 #

    I genuinely should have known that, given when I worked there the manual credit card machines (as in, those carbon-imprint takers) still said it on them. That’ll show me for typing too fast during my lunchbreak.

  3. 3
    Pete Baran on 10 May 2011 #

    What is more important. Bookshops or libraries? Because it strikes me (though I could be wrong) that libraries are the real competitor of the high-street chain bookstore that tries to be all things to all readers. Certainly the kind of browsing you suggest was much more exciting in a library than a bookstore to me as a child because I could take a risk on the book.

    There is an inevitability of what is happening to the book and music trade, and unfortunately only one part of adapt or die has been considered. The fault lies as much in the content providers as the people selling it. Oh and the consumer too clearly.

  4. 4
    Z on 10 May 2011 #

    I agree with you, whilst admitting that I do shop online for books. I buy in bookshops too, but there isn’t one in the nearest town, so it’s Norwich, 17 miles away, and I don’t get there often. I visited Topping & Company when I was in Bath (they also have a branch in Ely) and it reminded me of what a bookshop used to be like. Not rows of discounted bestsellers, but a fascinating shop full of quirky and interesting books to catch your eye, and I was entirely willing to pay full price.

    After a lifetime of obsessive reading, I’ve become jaded in the last two or three years, there are just too many over-hyped novels, all reviewed by friends and colleagues, winning awards and you can’t understand why, and I’ve never read so little fiction as in the past year, except by re-reading classics and books that I have enjoyed. Regarding Waterstone’s, I’m tired of having to buy three books when I only want one, or else knowing I’ve paid too much. If they’re giving a discount, just do it. I’ll pay the price asked, but if I have to buy more than I can conveniently carry, or want to buy on that occasion, then I might as well go home and buy it much cheaper from Amazon.

  5. 5
    Hazel on 10 May 2011 #

    Libraries can be, yes, as can charity and second hand bookshops. Online secondhand has been much more damaging to the high-street retailer than standard, I suspect. The libraries in my village and school were both extremely small, though, so bookshops were a big opportunity to be able to supplement re-reading things.

    Honestly I think the Borders/Waterstones wars harmed both parties nearly irrepairably. Waterstones are only still there because Borders caved before a Christmas but Borders’ only possible business model was to replace HMV/Waterstones, which didn’t immediately succeed so left them both locked in an increasingly frail deadlock for ages. Ex-Borders staff might tell it different. Some of it is reducing things/selling them at a loss when no one needed to (thus devaluing their own stock) and some of it is plain bad business decisions. Then again, bookshops aren’t really meant to make money, is the thing.

  6. 6

    The second-hand element of the argument is a separate — or a separable — issue, in that it has rendered mobile bcz monetisable the fairly vast reserves of books gathering dust in people’s houses, now being traded P2P on a vast scale. It’s arguable that LESS of this pre-existing reserve army of material now ends up in skips, because online technology allows it to circulate speedily and profitably and useably. But what’s been ended is the tax on the established past that used to cross-subsidise the future: viz we paid for a lot more copies than we strictly needed of the classics, pre-Amazon secondhand, and this somewhat helped swell Martin Amis’s next advance erm surely I mean find an aspiring young novelist’s early experiments…

    The online second-hand trade is really just a huge technologised expansion of what book collectors had always done (viz paying middlemen to keep an eye out for the items they were hunting down): which is why I assume it has an enhanced conservatory effect, on the past.

  7. 7
    Alan on 10 May 2011 #

    ‘Discoverability’ is a hot topic in the world of online book data. just saying like.

    The quality of discoverability in libraries, the lines of the filters they provide, is so very different to bookshops (for obvious reasons), and it will be interesting to see how it evolves online in relation to these modes. There’s the inexhaustible long-tail library element of the online ebook and postal-delivery giants, but economics will still funnel you to the traffic-generating low margin, and ‘hey, you will also like’ high margin items.

  8. 8

    […] and being certain is early-onset arthritis, and I’m still fragile from the election). Hazel at FreakyTrigger thinks it will be a tragedy if Waterstones has to close down. I agree. The ebook ‘revolution’, which has the potential to be hugely empowering both […]

  9. 9
    CarsmileSteve on 11 May 2011 #

    Ooh, two other things i thought of when cogitating about this piece, both of which sort of link together.

    The fact that the Net Book Agreement lasted until 1995 now seems astonishing and I wonder if it’s hanging around imposing a price cartel on bookshops meant that, in our childhoods (even Hazel’s! ;)) bookshops had no need to compete on price and thus were slightly fluffier places and this probably hasn’t helped them over the last fifteen years.

    Secondly, there are still a *lot* of books being sold in physical shops, it’s just that tesco and asda only sell 30 different ones (and, i fear, at a price that may yet drags publishers down before amazong does…)

    Also, I Was Not A Borders Employee But i knew a fair few of them and the atmosphere in the first few stores, before The Dreaded Expansion, sounds a lot like how you describe Waterstones. It was when they started bringing in general managers from other FMCG shops rather than training up their own that this dissipated it felt to me.

  10. 10
    Alan on 11 May 2011 #

    I may be stating the obvious, but defenders of the NBA always said a main aim was along the lines of what you say – to make bookshops fluffier, to allow smaller bookshops to prosper. I remember the collapse of the NBA well as I’d been at HC for a couple of years when we and other big publishers pre-empted the OFT/court investigation and it all fell apart.

    It may be of interest to others here to know that the OFT ‘swooped’ (yes SWOOPED) in on publishers just a few weeks back now, investigating the developing ‘agency’ model where publishers set the prices of eBooks. The difference here being that the vendors (apple etc) are now demanding the agency model, and unlike the NBA there is no ‘price fixing’ agreements between publishers – or none I know of, or that have been proven! This is, I believe, still a live investigation.

    (The agency model was largely Apple’s canny way of attacking Amazon’s appalling one price fits all, and stuff you all, approach, that was being used to shift Kindles and massively undermining sales of hardbacks. Thanks Apple. Not that Apple weren’t using iBooks just to help shift iPads, they were and are, but the competition did redress the Amazon distortion, and they responded very quickly. Too much info? Carry on…)

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