The Scottish Mail on Sunday

Water­stones boss: Book­shops are back

Think young peo­ple are look­ing at Snapchat in­stead of read­ing? Wrong! Water­stones’ boss says they have helped open a new chap­ter for high streets in...

- By James Ash­ton

IT WAS a tra­di­tional re­tailer fac­ing ruin af­ter los­ing cus­tom to more nim­ble com­peti­tors. Pre­dicted to col­lapse like Wool­worths and BHS, book chain Water­stones has been saved by a very old-fash­ioned re­vival that of­fers a glim­mer of hope for high streets ev­ery­where.

About to de­liver a sec­ond year of profit, chief ex­ec­u­tive James Daunt is now think­ing the un­think­able. Can he bring book­shops back to dis­tricts they have dis­ap­peared from as Bri­tain falls in love with brows­ing for paper­backs once again?

The book en­thu­si­ast thinks there are 60 lo­ca­tions around the coun­try that should have shops but do not.

‘It’s a re­flec­tion of the ap­palling ca­su­al­ties there have been in the in­de­pen­dent sec­tor in par­tic­u­lar,’ he says. His plan is for Water­stones to fill the gap. It would mark a big ex­pan­sion of his 270-strong chain, but he ad­mits it will take years to achieve. ‘There just aren’t that many re­tail units avail­able, so it is an as­pi­ra­tion.’

Still, the fact he is think­ing about it sug­gests Water­stones is here to stay. Only a few years ago, so-called re­tail ex­perts were writ­ing the last chap­ter of its own story af­ter Ama­zon tore into sales. That was un­til it was bought for £53mil­lion by Rus­sian bil­lion­aire Alexan­der Ma­mut, who hired Daunt in 2011 and tasked him with sav­ing the chain.

Water­stones seems re­laxed that he still owns his epony­mous book store chain. At his new com­pany he went straight back to ba­sics, in­stalling comfy fur­ni­ture, pyra­mid ta­bles and flow­ers. As we take tea on the bal­cony of the flag­ship store on Lon­don’s Pic­cadilly, Daunt, 53, gazes on the shop­pers below. ‘I have been res­o­lutely old-fash­ioned about it. We needed bet­ter shops.’

That meant re-en­er­gis­ing his army of book­sellers, even though he had to axe 200 of them to make ends meet. ‘They needed to want to change their shops. Would they start to en­joy be­ing book­sellers again? I knew if they did we would make a suc­cess of it.’

Much has gone on be­hind the scenes: new till sys­tems, re­duc­ing costly re­turns and hand­ing in­di­vid­ual book­shops re­spon­si­bil­ity for or­der­ing, sales and even pric­ing.

Such au­ton­omy and the in-store en­thu­si­asm that comes with it helped to make The Es­sex Ser­pent, a gothic Vic­to­rian novel by Sarah Perry, a sur­prise hit last year. This sum­mer, Daunt has high hopes for The Six­teen Trees Of The Somme by Lars Myt­ting, which has been trans­lated from Nor­we­gian.

He has kept pub­lish­ers on side even though he turned his back on £27mil­lion of in­come early on by end­ing the prac­tice of sell­ing space in win­dows to the high­est bid­der. ‘We have good re­la­tions with them. One rea­son is that I am clearly a book per­son. I speak their lan­guage and know them ex­tremely well.’

One of his big­gest in­vest­ments was light­ing. A sig­nif­i­cant part of his an­nual £6mil­lion store re­fur­bish­ment pro­gramme has gone on LED fix­tures, which are ‘blink­ing ex­pen­sive’ but ban­ished the old gloomi­ness with­out en­ergy use go­ing through the roof.

Touches such as th­ese helped lift sales even when branches moved premises. Take the new Wim­ble­don store in South West Lon­don. ‘It is much smaller [than the old one], it is not in as good a po­si­tion and the rent is much, much lower. And it is sell­ing slightly more books.’

It helps that the mar­ket is buoy­ant, even though there is noth­ing new from Harry Pot­ter au­thor JK Rowl­ing this year to flood shops with her fans. ‘We have def­i­nitely got nice, not dra­matic, but de­cent growth in phys­i­cal book sales,’ he says. The sim­ple beauty of a book has won back some Kin­dle con­verts. But a big­ger im­pact on sales has been so­cial me­dia sen­sa­tions turn­ing to tra­di­tional pub­lish­ing, in­clud­ing healthy eat­ing guru Joe Wicks.

The young adult sec­tion, where au­thors in­clude Malo­rie Black­man and Pa­trick Ness, is grab­bing more shelf space and has grown even in the years when e-read­ers dev­as­tated other cat­e­gories. Daunt is en­thused. ‘They are the read­ers of the fu­ture. Th­ese are the peo­ple who are not meant to be read­ing, they are all meant to be on Snapchat.’

And what about on­line re­tail­ers? Ama­zon, with its deep dis­counts, con­ve­nience and su­per-quick de­liv­ery, barely crops up as we talk. ‘I am ut­terly re­laxed about it,’ he says. ‘I think that is be­cause of where I come from. As an in­de­pen­dent book­seller you co­ex­ist along­side th­ese gi­ant chains Water­stones and Bor­ders. We’ll co­ex­ist with Ama­zon in the same way.’

But he is not com­pla­cent. Water­stones re­turned to the black with a £10.9mil­lion profit in the year to April 2016 and Daunt ex­pects the year just fin­ished will be ‘as good as’ the last. He is not sat­is­fied and would like to dou­ble prof­itabil­ity to give the com­pany a big­ger buf­fer.

‘If you are a pru­dent and re­spon­si­ble per­son run­ning a com­pany you would get your­self into shape to weather what­ever cir­cum­stance throws at you.’ He might as well be re­fer­ring to Brexit, which he warned staff last year could her­ald a sig­nif­i­cant re­tail down­turn. Daunt fears the longer term im­pli­ca­tions of high-value jobs leav­ing the UK.

Mean­while, Water­stones might change own­er­ship again. Ma­mut, who has stumped up about £100mil­lion to save it, ‘said his am­bi­tion is to put it back into a more Bri­tish own­er­ship, whether that is a stock mar­ket list­ing or some other form of place­ment of a stake. I think he likes be­ing as­so­ci­ated with us, but I don’t think he is wed­ded to own­ing Water­stones in its en­tirety.’

The mild-man­nered Daunt re­serves his anger for two sub­jects. The first is busi­ness rates. ‘I think the high street, par­tic­u­larly out­side the large met­ro­pol­i­tan ar­eas, is such an im­por­tant part of the fab­ric of com­mu­ni­ties,’ he says. ‘It of­fers good qual­ity jobs where peo­ple need to live. But I know high streets which are just trau­ma­tised and the rates bur­den is a mas­sive im­ped­i­ment to keep­ing shops open. That is a tragedy.’

His sec­ond con­cern is the state of pub­lic li­braries, which he claims op­er­ate along­side book­shops to boost chil­dren’s lit­er­acy. About £25mil­lion was cut from li­brary bud­gets last year, and another 121 li­braries were closed. ‘It is a catas­tro­phe. Li­braries are hugely im­por­tant and recreating them will never hap­pen. The amount of money that has been saved is mi­nus­cule.’

Daunt’s love of books goes back to a weekly visit as a child to his lo­cal North Lon­don li­brary with his mother. His fa­ther was a diplo­mat so they trav­elled – New York, Paris, Brus­sels, Cyprus. Af­ter univer­sity at Cam­bridge, he worked as an in­vest­ment banker at JPMor­gan, but found the work ‘ut­terly bor­ing’. Years be­fore bankers fell from grace, his wife didn’t think much of the pro­fes­sion ei­ther.

So at 25 he quit to fol­low his dream, tak­ing a big loan to buy for £240,000 a beau­ti­ful book­shop on Maryle­bone High Street in Cen­tral Lon­don. It was a huge gam­ble, but the Daunt Books chain has grown to six shops in the cap­i­tal, where ti­tles are still ar­ranged by coun­try. He still goes in to visit the staff.

‘It is ex­tremely rude for them not to at least pre­tend that they’ve missed me.’

As he re­flects on his suc­cess so far at Water­stones, there is only one book-shaped black cloud on the hori­zon: he has run out of space at his Hamp­stead home for his vast pri­vate col­lec­tion.

En­cour­aged by his wife Katy, Daunt has in­tro­duced a ‘one in, one out’ book pol­icy. The fa­ther of two daugh­ters sighs. ‘I clearly have a very long and en­dur­ing mar­riage, but every month I come back and there is a shelf that is empty. Ox­fam does quite well out of me.’

And Bri­tain’s high streets have done even bet­ter.

I have been old-fash­ioned and gone back to ba­sics – we sim­ply needed bet­ter book­shops

Li­brary clo­sures are a catas­tro­phe. They are hugely im­por­tant and recreating them will never hap­pen

 ??  ??
 ??  ?? NEW LEAF: James Daunt has taken the com­pany back to profit, aided by com­fort­able fur­ni­ture, au­ton­omy for in­di­vid­ual stores – and more young read­ers
NEW LEAF: James Daunt has taken the com­pany back to profit, aided by com­fort­able fur­ni­ture, au­ton­omy for in­di­vid­ual stores – and more young read­ers
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK