Waterstones was at death's door when it was purchased by Russian billioniare Alexander Mamut, who hired James Daunt — an investment banker who'd founded the successful, six-store Daunt Books — to run the chain.
Daunt shut down the least profitable stores — which everyone expected — but then did something remarkable: he ended the practice of ordering books and setting up promotions through national buyers, and devolved the authority for this to the store managers. The managers were empowered to promote the books of their choosing, allowed to put any books in the store windows (the chain had previously sold national window-access to publishers for £27m/year). Additionally, they would be told to promote a small list of books chosen by the chain execs — but these selections would be merit-based, rather than being sold to the highest bidder.
Returns of unsold books from the stores plummeted — from "far higher" than 15% to 2-3% today. The stores stopped selling Kindles, and has gone from a £4.5m loss in 2014-5 to a £9.8m pretax profit in the year to 30 April 2016.
I recently spent a day in London doing a pre-publication mini-tour for my upcoming novel Walkaway and stopped in at a good selection of both Waterstones and Daunt Books shops, and I can affirm that both have attained a very high standard of bookseller quality. As a recovering bookseller myself, and a frequently touring author besides, I've seen a lot of bookstores from every angle, and I was hugely impressed with the transformation of Waterstones since the last time I'd spent much time in them.
Among his booksellers, there is a palpable sense of civic mission. Jane Skudder, of Yorkshire's Bradford branch, which is atmospherically housed in the former Victorian Wool Exchange, says: "You have to look at the history of the last 10-12 years: we've had riots and by the late 2010s there was a big hole in the ground where the new shopping centre was going to be. I think Bradford has got its pride back. It spent a long time trying to be Leeds, and now it's remembered how to be Bradford."
In bookselling terms, being Bradford involves lots of poetry and maths books, washed down with Yorkshire tea and locally produced Yorkshire scallywags ("posh scones to you and me"). Jordan Ellenberg's How Not to be Wrong: The Hidden Maths of Everyday Life has been a big seller, while the launch of a debut thriller from local pharmacist turned "Bradford noir" pioneer AA Dhand drew more than 100 people. Plans are now in hand to capitalise on the route of the Tour de Yorkshire cycle race in April by selling tickets for charity to watch the peloton streak past from the arched windows at the back of the store.
Eighty miles north, in the small market town of Yarm, the manager of one of Waterstones' newest and smallest shops is catering for a very different sort of clientele. "We're a rural community and we're quite dog-friendly," says its 27-year-old manager, Michael Howlett, who heads a team of three. A picture book called Oi Dog! is a current in-store favourite as is Horses, Heifers and Hairy Pigs, the second volume of memoirs from Yorkshire vet Julian Norton.
Balancing the books: how Waterstones came back from the dead
[Claire Armitstead/The Guardian]
(Image: The Bookseller)