Only two weeks ago I was writing about the fate of Waterstone's - the largest bookshop chain outside the USA.
The story of Waterstone's is a sad one. Once, it was the pre-eminent specialist bookseller in Britain, synonymous with range and authority. For a generation who had grown up with a stark choice between a poorly stocked independent bookseller and a branch of W H Smith, Waterstone's was a revelation.
Publishers loved Waterstone's too. Suddenly, they could sell all of their difficult backlist and midlist titles to the most obscure corners of Middle England. Sales reps, armed with suitcases full of stock catalogues, descended like vultures, eager to take advantage of the bright, but often clueless, young booksellers, who were usually straight out of university.
I was one of them. When John Calder - Samuel Beckett's publisher - arrived unannounced and proceeded to order a vast quantity of backlist titles that we'd never sell, it didn't occur to me to dare to challenge his recommendations.
But it wasn't just John Calder's books that clogged up the shelves . The weakness of the original Waterstone's was that we thought that range was everything and stocked a lot of authors whose books no longer sold. Returns were done sporadically and, over the years, the shelves became clogged with dead stock (I once returned to my old branch of Waterstone's, five years after leaving and was dismayed to find stock that I'd ordered still sitting on the shelves).
However, when HMV bought the company, they went too far in the opposite direction.
One of the great strengths of the old Waterstone's was that if you liked the new Justin Cartwright novel, you could feel fairly confident that there'd be several of his backlist titles on the shelf. But not any more. HMV stripped away everything that was good about Waterstone's until it became the bland retail chain that it is today. Admittedly the competition was much tougher after the collapse of the Net Book Agreement, but, without a decent range, what was the point of Waterstone's?
Only a few weeks ago, Waterstone's looked as if it was finished, but luckily HMV were forced to sell the chain and it now has a whole new lease of life as a privately owned company.
In my last post, I cited Daunt Books as an example of how booksellers can survive and I'm heartened to see that the new owner has appointed James Daunt as Managing Director.
But, as several people have commented, although Daunt Books has bucked the trend of declining high-street book sales, isn't that simply because James Daunt has been astute enough to open shops in the wealthiest parts of London? How will he apply his formula to a national chain with stores in a variety of locations?
I have some experience in this area. Eleven years ago I became the manager of a loss-making branch of Ottakar's in Crawley - a 'new town' near Gatwick Airport. The shop wouldn't have been my first choice, but I wanted to buy a house in Lewes and Crawley was the nearest branch of the chain. Also, with a newborn son, I was struggling to manage my frantically busy London store. It was time to downsize.
I had mixed feelings about moving to Crawley, particularly the commuting. First, I had to drive for 23 miles along this road:
Then, as I reached the outskirts of Crawley, the traffic suddenly slowed down and the remaining part of my journey was spent slowly negotiating my way through roadworks, roundabouts and estates of cheap modern houses. It was particularly grim in the winter.
Finally, there was the huge disappointment when I arrived:
Crawley was a mistake. Once a small, sleepy place on the way to Brighton, it became identified as a potential 'new town' after the end of the Second World War and by the late 1950s the population had increased fivefold, largely due to an influx of Londoners.
At this point, Crawley was regarded as one of the more successful new towns, providing thousands of jobs and affordable homes. Unlike some of its counterparts, Crawley hadn't been ruined by Brutalist architecture and high-rise developments. It was more like an outer London suburb that had been dropped onto a field in Sussex.
But Crawley became the victim of its own success and, in the 1960s, permission was given to expand the town to 120,000 - a twelvefold increase on its 1945 population level. By the 1990s, the town's character had been completely eradicated by over-development and cheap, poorly designed housing.
Ottakar's were generally very astute at picking new sites for the bookshops, but they got it horribly wrong with Crawley. I was surprised, as a quick walk around the town centre would have confirmed that this wasn't bookshop territory - it was as if the middle classes had been ethnically cleansed.
Also, the town centre had seen better days:
As if this wasn't enough, there was already a branch of Waterstone's in the town, so what was the point of my shop? What could we offer our customers?
It would have been easy to feel despondent. I was managing a shop that was only taking 50% of its projected turnover in a town that didn't need another bookshop. Also, all of the bookselling knowledge I'd acquired in London seemed utterly useless (when Saramago won the Nobel Prize for literature, our branches in London quickly picked up the phone and ordered all of the backlist. In Crawley, I think they thought that Saramago was the manager of West Ham).
But, curiously, I felt invigorated by my new branch. Anyone can sell books in London - you just put the books on the table and open the doors. But to make a success of shop like Crawley was a real challenge and I knew that if I was going to make it work, I'd have to unlearn everything I knew.
I won't bore you with a blow-by-blow account of what we did, but in less than five years we went from a six-figure loss to being on the verge of breaking into profit. It took a lot of hard work, but the key to our success was that I was trusted to know my local market and allowed to run the shop in the way I saw fit, changing the prices of bestsellers, moving sections that weren't working and experimenting with new ranges.
Here are some of the things we did:
We always tried to make the shop bright, colourful and welcoming, with simple displays that wouldn't be off-putting to people who didn't normally visit bookshops. Tables generally weren't allowed to have more than six different titles and the selection would always reflect the local, rather than national, bestsellers.
Any empty spaces at the end of sections would have handmade displays, with staff reviews highlighting key titles. In this display (probably made by my very talented assistant manager) someone has customised some Ottakar's point-of-sale posters.
Upstairs we had a small branch of Costa Coffee with large, blank walls. I decided to invite local artists and photographers to display their work in the cafe and on the walls of the staircase. This was a huge success and, in a town without any gallery or arts scene, our shop soon became a hub for local artists and craftspeople.
We also had a thriving events programme. A Martin Amis or Ian McEwan signing would have been an embarrassment in Crawley, as our sales of literary fiction were amongst the lowest in the company. But we also enjoyed some of the best sales of children's books and I felt sure that if I could lure Jacqueline Wilson to the shop, it would be a success.
In the end, I made an offer that was hard to refuse and the result was the biggest Jacqueline Wilson signing session of all time, which lasted for eight hours. At one point, the queue was nearly a quarter of a mile long. It was a stressful, but exhilarating, day and I loved seeing how the fans made themselves at home:
When authors came to our shop, we always covered up the bookshelves behind the signing table to create a sense of theatre (if that doesn't sound too precious):
In addition to the Jacqueline Wilson signing, we held a number of events (including some awful New Age evenings that made me cringe with shame) in an attempt to get people through the door. A successful event got us free advertising in the local paper and word-of-mouth publicity.
After five years we almost broke into profit, then the landlords put the rent up. I wasn't very happy.
Ultimately we failed, but I'm convinced that we wouldn't have got as far as we did without being given the freedom to experiment and see what worked. Under HMV, I wouldn't have been able to decide what price to sell a book at or choose which titles went on my front table.
Which brings me to the point of this post. When James Daunt was announced as the new MD of Waterstone's, some people questioned how he would apply his strategy to shops like Crawley, where people just wanted to buy the new Sharon Osbourne for less than Smith's. However, I was encouraged by his assertion that the future of Waterstone's lay with giving power back to the shops and trusting booksellers to know their local market. If he can trust managers to run their shops, then Waterstone's may have a future.
Five years after Waterstone's took over Ottakar's, I feel vindicated. HMV's arrogant assertion that bookselling is no different from any other branch of retail has been proved wrong. In a few weeks time, Waterstone's should be back in the hands of booksellers.
I only hope that it isn't too late for the chain to be saved.