Bookshops – where next? by Barbara Nadel

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By far and away the biggest chain of bookshops in the UK is Waterstones. Over the years this giant has gobbled up many smaller and less profitable companies and has built its reputation on offers like its famous, three books for the price of two. Until very recently – until what I like to call the ‘recession’ but what my government choose to regard as a bit of bother that nevertheless necessitates closing libraries – Waterstones was doing well. But when the ‘downturn’ hit, it hit hard and the company was recently sold to Daunts – a quality travel bookshop – for a very ‘reasonable’ price.

Of course this sent shockwaves belting through the publishing industry over here and everyone was very curious to see what Mr Daunt (the owner of the eponymous bookshop) would do with Waterstones. Now we know.

Mr Daunt, it seems, is not very interested in competing with our supermarkets. His vision for the ‘new’ Waterstones is of a chain of shops that will become local community hubs, that will be places to meet and discuss as well as places where books are sold. This is much more in line with how independent bookshops operate and could be deemed an ‘old fashioned’ approach to the industry. I know that a lot of publishers are nervous about the death of the three for two offers as well as the lack of bestseller offers at the cash desks. But I think that for mid-list authors and also for some publishers too, it may be a good thing.

If people are not tempted by offers then maybe they will pick up books that are new and maybe even more interesting to them. Maybe not, we don’t know. What we do know is that the supermarkets will continue to sell popular books at discounted prices whatever.

For years Waterstones attempted to compete with the supermarkets without success. Now that Mr Daunt is in charge that policy has apparently been overturned. After all competing with the supermarkets did not have the desired effect for Waterstones. The company clearly lost out, hence the knock down price when it was sold to Daunts. But can Waterstones or indeed any chain store survive without offers?

At the moment it is the quality independent bookshops that do not discount. What these places, which are often genre or subject specific, offer in return is personal service from expert members of staff. Will Waterstones start to employ ‘specialist booksellers’ in their stores too? That we don’t know. But what looks very possible at the moment is that Waterstones may very well be pitting themselves against a new set of competitors in the shape of the independents.

Mr Daunt, apparently, wants his shops to be the centre of communities all over the UK. But how will the little local bookshop that’s been at the centre of a town for decades respond to this? Again we don’t know. What I do suspect however is that the discounting war has finally been won by our massive supermarket chains (and of course Amazon) who will carry on selling books heavily, just as they’ve been doing for years.

But maybe the book-heart of the high street is up for grabs again. Only time will tell whether that is a good or a bad thing and who it is a good or bad thing for.

Interesting times.

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