June 18, 2014

Waterstones takes cue from indie bookshops and will open ‘The Southwold Bookshop’



Southwold high street. Image via Flickr

Something interesting is happening over at Waterstones. The bookselling chain, which has around 275 stores across the UK’s high streets, has begun a spree of opening new shops. Just last week, as my colleague Kirsten Reach reported, it announced it would be opening a new Hatchards shop in St Pancras station, and this came after recent announcements of new shops in both Ringwood and Lewes.

The British high street isn’t in the best of shape. A combination of the country’s recession, the consumer’s move to online shopping and the continued spread of gigantic out-of-town shopping malls have badly affected local offerings of shops and services.  At best, the high street is a row of identikit big brands (Costa Coffee, Primark, Superdrug, Waterstones if you’re lucky…); at worst it’s a scruffy assortment of discount stores, pound shops and empty retail units. Bookshops aren’t necessarily expected to thrive in either scenario.

So it’s heartening to see that Waterstones is determined to remain a brand on the high street and that it’s finding new locations on which to lay its foundations. Managing Director James Daunt has spoken about the continued relevance of Waterstones as a chain bookstore and he’s demonstrating this with the creation of new Waterstones branches.

But yesterday Waterstones went one step further. It announced that it would be opening a new store in Southwold in Suffolk but rather than it being another Waterstones, it would be simply called “The Southwold Bookshop”. Daunt explained that the store would be “a quintessentially local bookshop”, and went so far as to liken the shop to an independent, telling the Bookseller:

You can’t pour all the normal Waterstones sections into a shop of this size but must, as most independents have to do, juggle and prioritise to make an interesting shop.

This is an unexpected but pleasing move. Here is a chain store taking its cue from indie bookshops, and celebrating that fact. It’s a nod to the fantastic service independent bookshops provide, and aligns Waterstones with independent booksellers, not against them (there once was a time when indies feared Waterstones the way they now fear Amazon).

What’s more, it respects the community it is entering; as the Bookseller notes, locals recently opposed the opening of a Costa Coffee in the area, but The Southwold Bookshop will fit in discreetly, with no big logo in sight, and led by location rather than brand. The only question is how book ordering will operate. Controversially, Waterstones store managers lost their buying power a while back. Will the manager of The Southwold Bookshop be able to chose and curate the stock, just like indie bookshop buyers do? That’s what gives a local bookshop its strength and character, after all.

Daunt has hinted that if this experiment is successful, more new bookshops will follow the model. He’s also confirmed that Waterstones will continue to open more new stores, although we don’t yet know how many he will close, and in which areas.

But this to me does not seem like a book chain that has resigned itself to its own downfall, looking for a now too-familiar strategy of pile-them-high-and-sell-them cheap— with a side order of cheap chocolate bars and assorted stationery. It feels like a bookshop with a plan, and one that still cares about the business of hand-selling books, and is considerate about how to do that. And I think that’s very reassuring.




Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.