Thursday, May 26, 2011

Crawley (Another Dull Post About Bookselling)

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.


Vickie said...

Your blog is splendid and one of my favorites. I live in a small town on the Pacific coast in Oregon (USA). We have a thriving bookselling community here. Lots of rainy days make it a readers' paradise. One doesn't feel guilty curled up with a book if it is too cold and rainy outdoors..! And no chain stores here, only small independent sellers - many dealing in used books. My theory is any book traveling west ends up here because it can't go any farther!

Tim Footman said...

A pity you couldn't have lured Martin Amis. "Reveller stamps on man's neck" seems to chime better with him than it does with the sainted Dame Jacqueline.

Martin H. said...

You could offer your services, as a consultant.


Another far from dull post. A problem for me with bookshops is that I always have two small children in tow. How I would love to walk into any bookshop knowing that the children are welcome to take books from the shelves and look at them. As it is, Waterstone's is the only bookshop in which I can do this, owing to it's size, and completely sectioned off children's area. As you proved, this is doable in smaller stores too, lure the kids, the parents won't say no to buying books for them. Be nice to the children, they will return as teens, as adults and as parents because their love for books was nurtured. I get very annoyed when customers and staff glare at me or my children when they get enthusiastic and excited in book shops.
Your passion, experience and resourcefulness would, as Martin H said, make for a great advisor to the trade. Let's start a camapaign!

Modern Life is Rubbish said...

You make a very important point that bookselling isn't like any other kind of retail - in fact - there is no such thing as 'typical' retail models - every brand and ever retail sector I have worked with needs to establish it's own identity and independent retail model - now more than ever as the high street becomes increasingly bland and homogenised. I've worked with too many companies that grew, became drunk on success and gravitated towards a 'tried and tested' business model that failed them in every case - and now I'm seeing similar problems in Further and Higher education. Even the pound shops that have infested our high streets have the opportunity to carve out their own niche ( ouch! - remember 'niche' retailing... ) if they understand their customer and location. It's probably one of the good things about recession that creative thinking, motivation and industry are able to flourish in the vacuum of retail collapse... mind you - as I type, Costa in Hastings ( x2 branches ) are about to be joined across the square by Cafe Nero in an unholy devils triangle of Mocca-chocca-skinny-latte hell.

Sam Jordison said...

Super post. Reveller stamps on man's neck is lovely too...

Steerforth said...

Thanks for your comments. Being a consultant would be great fun wouldn't it, although I think some people would probably choke on their croissants if I walked in the door!

Gardener in the Distance said...

As a bookseller on the other side of the planet - rapidly becoming a former bookseller - most businesses I've worked in have been neurotically obsessed with profit, with little evidence of human feeling. What attracted me to literature, and hence to bookselling, in the first place, was evidence of a higher human feeling than I encountered in the world around me. If notions of higher human feeling aren't defended by booksellers, booksellers are simply salespeople. And if booksellers are only salespeople, they deserve to suffer the vagaries of the market. If I had an unforgiving moment, Steerforth, I would happily toss most booksellers I've known into a bonfire. Just as well words and books and open communication still matter to me. Bookselling is a craft, a form of curating and nurturing...the world outside needs being heard and broadcasted...

Steerforth said...

Well said Gardener! (Although I draw the line at burning former colleagues ;))

Ms Baroque said...

Ah, this is wonderful: not dull at all. And as I discovered it right after writing a whole thing about Waterstone's, I've blogged it. (And Sam I linked to your piece too.) How unusual it feels to hear some really GOOD news!!

Thomas at My Porch said...

I certainly hope that James Daunt changes Waterstone's and that Waterstone's doesn't change Daunt Books.

Ms Baroque said...

Sorry - not sure if my comment went through then or not - if not, it went to this effect...

What a wonderful post! Not dull at all, in fact so not dull - and so well timed, right after I wrote about Waterstone's - that I have given it a spot over in Baroque Mansions. (Sam, I also linked to your article. I loved your simple but effective device with the websites.)

How rare it is that we get some really GOOD news!

And hey, what about that ridiculous one in the Spectator. Dear me.

christinelaennec said...

Another very interesting insight (Vickie beat me to saying it is simply splendid!) into the book trade in the past few decades and now. Your shop in Crawley looks like it would have been a haven for a few folks. The "reveller stamps on man's neck" headline is a sobering contrast to the Visiting Author story!

Steerforth said...

Thanks for the mention Katy - I'm very flattered. My gut feeling is that James Daunt's in for a rough ride, but a decent, viable chain may emerge out the the ruins of today's unsustainable business.

Like Thomas, I hope that Waterstone's won't be James Daunt's Waterloo. I've never met Mr daunt, but everything he has said so far seems spot on. If only he'd been at the helm five years ago instead of Gerry Johnson - a man who thought that 'On the Road' was the same book as Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road'.

The Spectator article offers a very blinkered view of how we buy books and doesn't take browsing or convenience into account.

Christine, I'm told that the shop was regarded as a haven by many and I used to love seeing people 'use' the shop and enjoy it, as if they had a stake in it. HMV didn't like fluffy things like a shop's atmosphere - they loved measuring and comparing. But for me, bookselling was an art, not a science.

Martin Lower said...

Thoroughly enjoyed this post. I have no experience as a bookseller, but twenty-five years ago I worked in Crawley for a while. I found it a depressing experience, and to achieve the success you did speaks volumes for you.
HMV did to Waterstones exactly what they did to their record shops. They were homogenised to such an extent, that if you (like me) enjoy music that didn't get anywhere near the charts, you had no chance of finding it at HMV. Oh, and while they were at it, by discounting the new releases they ripped the guts out of the independent sector as well. I'm afraid I shed no tears for them in their present plight.
Here endeth the lesson......

Steerforth said...

Yes, I remember when HMV was cool, staffed by weird-looking people with an encyclopaedic knowledge of bands and record labels (I was too scared to buy a chart album from them).

Then the suits took over. Suit No.1 used to work in M&S and wasn't an expert on music (although he liked a bit of Chris Rea), but he was sure that the same principles applied in any area of retail. Bananas, CDs, slippers,'s all the same.

Suit No.2 thought the staff looked like a bunch of slackers who were putting people off. "Let's bring in some nice polo shirts so that the customers can tell who actually works there" (I just used to aim for the person with the most piercings).

Suit No.3 thought that shop floor staff were too interested in obscure bands and were missing sales opportunities from the mass market - "We need to attract older customers - they're the ones with the money." Buying decisions were increasingly centralised and the stock became more mainstream.

They probably all sat in offices and talked a lot of nonsense about 'the brand', oblivious to the fact that they were killing it.

Meanwhile, the Chief Suit watched a tiny American company called Amazon slowly grow on a thing called the Internet. "It'll never catch on," he said, "Most people couldn't operate a computer to save their lives."

Alienne said...

The suits missed i-tunes as well didn't they.

I much preferred Ottakers to Waterstones and was very annoyed when they were taken over and converted or closed.

Nicola Morgan said...

Very interesting post and a gripping story, too. Even ends on a cliff-hanger!

Well done with your success in Crawley and let's hope all the Waterstone's managers thrive on their autonomy. My experience of talking to the ones I know is that they will.

Steerforth said...

Thanks Nicola. Yes, Waterstone's has some great managers (much better than I ever was), but I'm worried that some of them might be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome after their years in captivity.

Alienne - Not as annoyed as I was ;)

Perhaps now that HMV have had their comeuppance, my rage will subside.

Anonymous said...

Currently I live near Seattle (home of Boeing, Microsoft, Costco and Starbucks). Borders, the nearest large chain is on the ropes in the USA too.

Not sure just why -- I've no marketing experience. But I do love to read, and recognize the influence of the net in its ability to provide what I personally really like to read -- English novels usually unavailable in places like Borders or Barnes & Noble.

We do have a very nice independent bookshop nearby, which has recently branched out to include special orders and used books as well as hardcovers.

I sincerely hope the bookstores are able to stay afloat -- I would hate to have to give up the pleasure of browsing when I go in.

By the way, we were recently in your part of the world -- went to Uckfield, Sussex, to visit a nephew and his wife. Sadly they are soon giving up their lovely home and moving to Spain. Too much rain in the winter I guess. I hope they aren't doing something which they will later regret, as it's really beautiful there in East Sussex.

Hope you're having a great bank holiday weekend, Canadian Chickadee

Steerforth said...

Chickadee - Glad you liked East Sussex. It's a shame the weather is a little changeable here (although we've just had five weeks without rain), but every time I turn on the news and see a tornado, tsunami, earthquake, drought or five feet of snow, I stop moaning.

I don't blame anyone for moving to Spain though.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Sounds like you did an amazing job Steerforth and would have turned around its fortunes entirely given more time, having made it such a local hub. How dare landlords keep putting the rent up in a recession.
I have two highly intelligent cousins in Crawley (retired teachers). I will ask them if they frequented that branch. What surprises me is that they always stick up for the place and promise me that it's not as ghastly as it appears when I go to see them.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

I love the headline underneath your story.


Steerforth said...

Yes, that's Crawley all over.

Laura - if your cousins are highly intelligent, they probably frequented the Crawley branch of Waterstone's which, for all its faults, always had a better range than us ;)