Last Monday, Waterstones announced the 2019 opening of a new store in Edinburgh. But this would be under the guise of ‘Stockbridge Books’, with no Waterstones branding, in an area of the city that is already served by a thriving independent bookstore.
To Golden Hare books, it was an aggressive statement of intent that would see the chain masquerading as an independent bookshop, hoping to lure customers who might be otherwise put off from shopping at a chain.
The announcement went against Waterstones chief executive James Daunt’s promise in 2017 that none of these unbranded bookshops would open in locations which are already served by an independent bookstore. So far seven have opened, mainly in affluent market towns in England.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in 2017, he said: “They are very small shops in towns that had independents and very much wish they still had independents but don’t.”
However, the cultural hub of Edinburgh is clearly a different proposition. And Golden Hare books in the Stockbridge area of the city hit out on social media at the news, which saw huge support both online and from their local community.
Golden Hare’s manager, Julie Danskin, spoke to New Start magazine about the response since Waterstones announced the news on Monday. “A lot of people are coming in and saying they will shop exclusively with us,” she said. “The word has spread. The response has been amazing and its assured us a lot more about our future.
“People do realise the difference between chains and independents, but as soon as they start disguising themselves as something else, it’s masquerading or misleading,” she added.
Less than 48 hours after the announcement of Stockbridge Books, James Daunt revealed a twist in the tale. The store was not going to be named Stockbridge Books after all.
He told Bookseller, ‘It has been a little bit a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, which can happen in large companies.
“Clearly, we need to call it a Waterstones.”
The indie mindset
James Daunt himself owns six branches of independently owned Daunts Books in well-heeled parts of London, which he runs alongside his job at Waterstones.
Following his appointment in 2011, he emphasised the need for chains such as Waterstones to become more ‘local’, which he said meant getting to know their customers and stocking the shop in ways that speak to the community they serve.
This had been the key to the success of Daunt Books, and his independently-minded philosophy has been seen as the driving force behind the revival of the Waterstones brand, which has seen over an 80 per cent jump in annual profits since he took the helm.
However, in April 2018, an American hedge fund acquired Waterstones from Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut for an undisclosed sum, which calls into question just how authentic their indie credentials are.
Julie spent two years working as a bookseller for Waterstones before moving to Golden Hare, and she says their status as a chain that operates on a centralised scale gives them an unfair advantage in the marketplace. She says all the stock comes from a massive hub: they have huge staff resources, and the ability to afford rapidly rising rents.
“I work ridiculous hours every week just to make sure we can pay our bills at the end of the week,” she says.
“That’s how all independent businesses work, not just bookshops – so we resent the idea that what we’re doing, and what we work so hard to do, can be replicated because it can’t.”
St. Stephen’s Street, Stockbridge. Image: Stephen Dickson/Wikipedia.
Homogenisation of place
Even the naming of the new store was contentious. In Stockbridge, which is a mile away from Edinburgh Waverley station in the city centre, there was previously an independent bookshop called The Stockbridge Bookshop which closed a few years ago. Customers still come into Golden Hare either looking for it or reminiscing.
“People remember it fondly, so in that sense, the naming was a little bit insensitive,” says Julie. “Either they haven’t done their research or it doesn’t matter to them that there used to be a bookshop with that name.” She adds that, in Stockbridge, people are community orientated, and they genuinely care about whether it’s independent or from a chain.
The new Waterstones will be part of a contentious development which involves a new stadium for Edinburgh Academicals rugby club. Julie says it’s primarily high street chains who are buying up the leases, and there’s a worry in Stockbridge that a community centred place is going to be a homogenised.
“There will be a real kick back against,” she says.
The community has rallied, and they’ve received support from publishers, other indie bookshops and authors, including crime writer Val McDermid.
“Following their announcement, the amount of love and support from the community has been amazing,” says Julie.
For her, it’s important for independent bookshops across the UK that Waterstones learn their lesson. Daunt told the Bookseller the group will not be operating in “a predatory way” – and Julie has warned Waterstones that if they are in expansion mode then they should be more careful about where they open.
“We’re very pleased they’ve had a change of heart. I just hope they learn from this and properly research communities before moving in. They should have known we were here and flourishing. I get the sense they forgot or didn’t know that we were there. A very brief google search would have shown we were very much there and doing a lot for the community.”
“They like to see themselves as a force for good, and largely more bookshops are,” she adds. “Most independent bookshops want them to service because it makes our book industry more viable, more people are buying books.”
Waterstones U-turn is a victory for the independents, but they know they still have a fight on their hands. Pressure from the likes of Amazon and online retailers is relentless, and the store will still be opening as a regular Waterstones in early 2019.
“Am I delighted there’s going to be a Waterstones so close to us? No. Especially when there’s a big one just up the road, but I believe we will survive and continue to flourish.
“I’ve never met an indie bookseller who wants Waterstones not to exist. They are an important part of bookshops, but what we don’t want them doing is moving in on communities that we have created, which are key to our survival.
“I think it’s the idea that a chain bookshop can come in and replicate that: it feels a little insulting and patronising,” she concludes. “It’s untrue. Independent bookshops aren’t something you can just copy and paste.”
Thomas Barrett is the editor of New Start magazine, where this article was originally published. He tweets as @tbarrettwrites.
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