Is your local indie bookshop really independent? On proposals for a new ‘stealth’ Waterstones in Edinburgh

Inside a Waterstones in 2013. Image: Getty.

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.


Going forward

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.

You might also be interested in this story, on the rise of the Stealth Starbucks.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.