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.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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