Martyn McLaughlin: Outrage aimed at Waterstones is misdirected

'˜Secret' independent bookshops opened by Waterstones should be seen as good news for any high street, says Martyn McLaughlin
Elaine Henrys Word Power Books in Edinburgh is a true independent bookseller but there is also a place for big name retailers like Waterstones. Picture: Jon SavageElaine Henrys Word Power Books in Edinburgh is a true independent bookseller but there is also a place for big name retailers like Waterstones. Picture: Jon Savage
Elaine Henrys Word Power Books in Edinburgh is a true independent bookseller but there is also a place for big name retailers like Waterstones. Picture: Jon Savage

You can tell a lot about a community by its bookshops. They may be an increasingly endangered member of the retail family, but in the homogeneous wasteland that passes for the average high street, their own character serves as a reliable guide to the place in which it is located and the people who frequent it.

The eclectic Word Power Books in Edinburgh’s West Nicolson Street, for example, carries the flame of the capital’s proud enlightenment roots, serving as a portal into an ever-expanding world of small presses and big ideas.

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In Glasgow, the delightful jumble of Voltaire and Rousseau – its voluminous shelves supplemented by teetering stacks where once, long ago, carpets were kissed by daylight – feels like the perfect complement to the city: a chaotic place, but one forever ready with a warm welcome.

No doubt the residents of Southwold, a quintessentially English resort town with its historic pier and furrow of multicoloured beach huts lining the Suffolk coastline, felt a similar psychogeography at work when Southwold Books opened.

Occupying an 18th century listed building in the town’s centre, the bookshop seemed designed to reflect the community in microcosm. With its Farrow & Ball-inspired hues, elegantly understated storefront, and flashes of bunting, all that is missing is the smell of freshly buttered crumpets.

So far, so innocuous, but all is not what it seems. In a sign of what ails middle Britain, a backlash has sprung up against Southwold Books on account of its ultimate owner – Waterstones.

According to its critics, the chain is guilty of muscling in on our sacred high streets by disguising itself as an independent bookseller. Words such as “undercover”, “secretive”, and “subterfuge” have been thrown the way of Waterstones, insinuating that Southwold – one of three shops the chain has branded as independent outlets – is part of some dastardly corporate coup which seeks to seize control of neighbourhood watch schemes.

There are several problems with this argument, the first being that Southwold Books opened its doors in 2014, since which time it has helped attract a steady flow of custom into the town. When it was launched, there was no other bookshop in Southwold, and unlike the routine protests which greet the expansion plans of Costa Coffee, its introduction into the local economy did not pose a threat to existing businesses.

The second difficulty is the insinuation that Waterstones has been deceitful in its branding. The chain has made no secret of the ownership situation; its Southwold shop features a notice on the front door stating: ‘Southwold Books is the trading name of Waterstones Booksellers Ltd’. This is not deceit, but astute marketing and scalability.

Until the issue came to light, the store was praised for its handsome interiors, attentive staff, and quirky selection. Now, it stands accused of heinous practices. “Have you been conned by a fake Waterstones?” asked one news outlet, adding that the company has been “sneaking books on to the high street in secret”. If only there were more culprits around with the temerity to educate the public.

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The anger directed at Waterstones stems from localism, a worthy and admirable credo, but one which is being distorted indiscriminately. If there is any sort of precedent to this, it involves Tesco, an altogether more rapacious behemoth.

A few years ago, the intelligentsia of London’s Crouch End nearly choked on the froth of their latte macchiatos after it emerged Harris + Hoole, a small artisan coffeeshop chain, had sold a non-controlling minority stake to the supermarket giant.

Its involvement was enough to spark talk of boycotts, petitions and, in a sign of middle-class rage at its most venomous, letter-writing campaigns. The extent of the outrage felt preposterous, though the point of principle from which it stemmed made sense.

In a sector not known for altruism, Tesco pursues uniquely cynical and aggressive tactics, against which the supposed bulwarks of local authority planning departments have proven meek and ineffective.

For all its strategic faults in pursuing heavy discounting and the celebrity memoirs touted by big publishing, Waterstones is an upstanding example of Big Retail in comparison.

With regular book signings and talks by local authors, it is a responsible and responsive presence on our high streets, tailoring its offerings to individual communities. It is no coincidence that its managing director, James Daunt, ran an independent chain of bookshops before taking charge of the company, and he has done a great deal to reverse its ruinous “pile-em-high” philosophy, instead allowing store managers greater say over their stock and displays. This strategy has helped the firm fend off the threat of bankruptcy and return to profit for the first time in nearly a decade. Do we really want to run out such a company from our towns and villages, further depriving people of choice and forcing them to give their money to Amazon, a multinational with an unconscionable attitude towards taxation?

Those fighting on behalf of the values of localism do not have their battles to seek, and the pending business rates hike will no doubt make that task all the more difficult as small and medium business owners feel the pinch. But the attack on Waterstones is misdirected. Perhaps in this instance you should judge a bookshop by its cover.