Waterstones’ Russian store sets agenda for chain

Waterstones’ Russian Bookshop is trading ahead of expectations after opening its doors early prior to its official launch this Saturday. Waterstones announced in January that it was to open a Russian bookshop taking up 1,200 sq ft of space at its giant Piccadilly store, staffed by Russian speakers, with the Russian-language stock curated by Boris Kupriyanov, owner of Moscow’s Falanster & Tciolkovskiy bookshops.

A launch party for the new shop was held last night (1st March) in Piccadilly, attended by Waterstones' Russian owner Alexander Mamut, managing director James Daunt, and a smattering of publishers including Dame Gail Rebuck, Random House UK chief executive, Anthony Forbes-Watson m.d. of Pan Macmillan, and Ian Chapman, m.d and c.e.o. of Simon & Schuster.

Neil Best, head of retail operations at Waterstones, said initial trading was good having benefited from strong interest from the 100,000-strong Russian-speaking community in London as well as traffic generated by the Maslenitsa Russian festival, which took place last weekend (26th February) in Trafalgar Square. “We’re trading really well, ahead of expectations after the first weekend, and our job now is to keep that buzz going: if you are a Russian speaker and living in London, then I’d expect you to know about this, and there will be a lot of people just interested in taking a look at what we’ve done.”

Describing the shop as a “return to old-style bookselling”, Best, a 23-year Waterstones veteran who formerly ran Waterstones’ Amsterdam store before moving to Brentford via Gower Street, said the launch would help “set the agenda” for how the business would think about enhancing the individuality of stores across the 295-strong chain.

“We’ve put a bit of theatre into it, and created an atmosphere that will encourage people to loiter and browse.” Best said he took inspiration from what he’d seen of Russian bookshops since the chain first came up with the idea of launching the Russian bookshop in October, and from his time based in Amsterdam, in order to create a “European style” of bookselling.

It was also, he said, a reflection of Daunt’s own strategy for the wider business, with store managers charged with making each bookshop “distinctive” and relevant to their own community. He added: “It’s got its own identity within the Piccadilly store and that is a good steer for what we are trying to do in all our stores. It’s all about giving stores a life of their own: if you talk to managers up and down the chain they will say that this is already beginning to happen.”

Best said the shop would have to work commercially, and that Waterstones would look at opening other foreign language bookshops if the conditions were right. “You’ve have to say, ‘why wouldn’t we?’ It is very easy to think that we are doing this because of the ownership, but it has to be viable. We’ll look at how this develops, and then we’ll have those conversations.” Despite the chain's Russia ownership Best said he’d had just “two conversations” with Mamut since the idea for the shop had been floated.

The shop will be known as the Russian Bookshop at Waterstones, having dropped its initial name Slova (Russian for “words”). It will stock nearly 5,000 Russian language titles as well as Russian books in translation. Best said the chain had sought quality both in production terms and content from Russia, as well as titles that might be of interest to Russian speakers living in London, such as Russian-language versions of Peter Ackroyd’s books, and Richard Davies’ illustrated Wooden Churches: Travelling in the Russian North. “We’ve looked for good books, not just Russian books.”

Daunt said the shop had a “stunning selection of books, showcasing Russian literature and unique book design to a wonderful, inspiring effect”. He added: “This feels like the perfect time to be opening the Russian Bookshop in London, and we have been overwhelmed by the interest shown by Russian cultural enthusiasts and the Russian population across the UK.”

The Russian Bookshop at Waterstones will officially open its doors to the public at 9 a.m. on Saturday 3rd March.