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.

 
 
 
 

“A story of incompetence, arrogance, privilege and power”: A brief history of the Garden Bridge

Ewwww. Image: Heatherwick.

Labour assembly member Tom Copley on a an ignominious history.

The publication last week of the final bill for Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge has once again pushed this fiasco into the headlines.

As well as an eye-watering £43m bill for taxpayers for this Johnsonian indulgence, what has been revealed this week is astonishing profligacy by the arms-length vehicle established to deliver it: the Garden Bridge Trust. The line by line account of their spending reveals £161,000 spent on their website and £400,000 on a gala fundraising event, amongst many other eyebrow raising numbers. 

Bear in mind that back in 2012, Johnson promised that the bridge would be entirely privately funded. The bridge’s most ardent advocate, Joanna Lumley, called it a “tiara for the Thames” and “a gift for London”. Today, the project would seem the very opposite of a “gift”.

The London Assembly has been scrutinising this project since its inception, and I now chair a working group tasked with continuing our investigation. We are indebted to the work of local campaigners around Waterloo as well as Will Hurst of the Architects Journal, who has brought many of the scandals surrounding the project into the open, and who was the subject of an extraordinary public attack by Johnson for doing so.

Yet every revelation about this cursed project has thrown up more questions than it has answers, and it’s worth reminding ourselves just how shady and rotten the story of this project has been.

There was Johnson’s £10,000 taxpayer funded trip to San Francisco to drum up sponsorship for the Thomas Heatherwick garden bridge design, despite the fact that TfL had not at that point even tendered for a designer for the project.

The design contest itself was a sham, with one of the two other architects TfL begged to enter in an attempt to create the illusion of due process later saying they felt “used”. Heatherwick Studios was awarded the contract and made a total of £2.7m from taxpayers from the failed project.


Soon after the bridge’s engineering contract had been awarded to Arup, it was announced that TfL’s then managing director of planning, Richard de Cani, was departing TfL for a new job – at Arup. He continued to make key decisions relating to the project while working his notice period, a flagrant conflict of interest that wouldn’t have been allowed in the civil service. Arup received more than £13m of taxpayer cash from the failed project.

The tendering process attracted such concern that the then Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, ordered an internal audit of it. The resulting report was a whitewash, and a far more critical earlier draft was leaked to the London Assembly.

As concerns about the project grew, so did the interventions by the bridge’s powerful advocates to keep it on track. Boris Johnson signed a mayoral direction which watered down the conditions the Garden Bridge Trust had to meet in order to gain access to further public money, exposing taxpayers to further risk. When he was hauled in front of the London Assembly to explain this decision, after blustering for while he finally told me that he couldn’t remember.

David Cameron overruled the advice of senior civil servants in order to extend the project’s government credit line. And George Osborne was at one point even more keen on the Garden Bridge than Johnson himself. The then chancellor was criticised by the National Audit Office for bypassing usual channels in order to commit funding to it. Strangely, none of the project’s travails have made it onto the pages of the London Evening Standard, a paper he now edits. Nor did they under his predecessor Sarah Sands, now editor of the Today Programme, another firm advocate for the Garden Bridge.

By 2016 the project appeared to be in real trouble. Yet the Garden Bridge Trust ploughed ahead in the face of mounting risks. In February 2016, despite having not secured the land on the south bank to actually build the bridge on, nor satisfied all their planning consents, the Trust signed an engineering contract. That decision alone has cost the taxpayer £21m.

Minutes of the Trust’s board meetings that I secured from TfL (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Trust itself) reveal that weeks beforehand Thomas Heatherwick had urged the trustees to sign the contract in order to demonstrate “momentum”.

Meanwhile TfL, which was represented at board meetings by Richard de Cani and so should’ve been well aware of the mounting risks to the project, astonishingly failed to act in interests of taxpayers by shutting the project down.

Indeed, TfL allowed further public money to be released for the project despite the Trust not having satisfied at least two of the six conditions that had been set by TfL in order to protect the public purse. The decision to approve funding was personally approved by Transport Commissioner Mike Brown, who has never provided an adequate explanation for his decision.

The story of the Garden Bridge project is one of incompetence, arrogance and recklessness, but also of privilege and power. This was “the great and the good” trying to rig the system to force upon London a plaything for themselves wrapped up as a gift.

The London Assembly is determined to hold those responsible to account, and we will particularly focus on TfL’s role in this mess. However, this is not just a London issue, but a national scandal. There is a growing case for a Parliamentary inquiry into the project, and I would urge the Public Accounts Committee to launch an investigation. 

The Garden Bridge may seem like small beer compared to Brexit. But there is a common thread: Boris Johnson. It should appal and outrage us that this man is still being talked about as a potential future Prime Minister. His most expensive vanity project, now dead in the water, perhaps serves as an unwelcome prophecy for what may be to come should he ever enter Number 10.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.