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.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.