'I wanted the Waterstone’s stores to be the most civilised and welcoming places in the world'

The Waterstone’s model was simply this: the highest class of heavily stocked literary bookselling run on a national scale by an unusually enthusiastic and highly knowledgeable young staff. There was an intense desire by all of us in the company that our model, our very own model, would succeed. For it was now the staffs’ model as much as it was mine, and I really liked it that way.

New York had great, great bookshops open at every hour, and Paris too. Rome and Amsterdam also. San Francisco had what seemed like dozens of them. So why not London? I wanted the Waterstone’s stores to be the most civilised and welcoming places in the world – better even than those in the rest of the world. I wanted them open day and night and for seven days a week. And I wanted in time tens and tens of dozens of them across the British Isles. And so did the staff – they were exhilarated by what we were doing, and they wanted that too.

This was in a climate where most people in the book trade thought that we would fail, and on the retail side many seemed strongly to wish that we would do so, perhaps unsurprisingly. The knowledge of that served to drive us all on yet more determinedly, of course. The Chartered Booksellers Association refused us membership, and did so by means of an insulting letter. And some of their delegates, quite unforgivably, got up and booed one of our young branch managers when, giving his name and Waterstone’s as his company, he tried to ask a question at one of their conferences (he was just 23 years old).

Thankfully, our Hatchards recruits in particular understood the vision I was trying to describe to them. And they understood it because it is difficult to overstate how lamentable the bookselling scene of the time was. The previous decade, the 1970s, had proved particularly grim. You could say that the three or four prominent university bookshops – Dillons in London, Blackwell’s in Oxford, Heffers in Cambridge, and perhaps James Thin in Edinburgh – were doing their job, and generally well. In London there were bookshop boutiques that had a strong following – Heywood Hill (a sort of cultural annexe of White’s Club in St James’s, whose membership was wholly aristocratic) was well known if quirky, and you could say the same for the excellent John Sandoe, the vast Foyle’s and the specialist Compendium. But having said that, together we all found it inexplicable that a city as great and as culturally diverse as London had within it, apart from the few names above, no stockholding literary bookshops at all, and certainly not one single one – Foyle’s, Hatchards, Dillons, not one of them – that was open at the weekend past lunchtime on Saturdays, let alone on weekday evenings. Hilariously, the High Hill bookshop in Hampstead, with the advantage of perhaps the most bookish public around them of anywhere in the British Isles, and quite possibly in the world, only turned on its lights if someone stepped into the shop. They then turned them off again immediately when the departing customer was still stepping out through the door... Actually, telling that anecdote reminds me of something else. Before High Hill opened in Hampstead there was no bookshop at all in that famously literary part of London. How incredible that is. Every third person in Hampstead is a published novelist, as the joke runs. There had been no bookshop for them. What an indication that is as to how appallingly empty and bereft Britain’s bookselling scene was during the post-war decades. Come 1982, and the vacuum was still there. That is what we spotted (if you can spot a vacuum), and that was our opportunity . . .

. . . And so we thrust onwards, opening initially two shops or so a year. At this point I must say that Waterstone’s has often been accused, or more accurately I have been accused, of having had too little regard for the health and safety of the many independent booksellers around the nation who, in the days before Waterstone’s existed, could be said to have been labouring mightily and nobly in the task of providing quality literary bookselling. All that in contrast to WH Smith, who had interest only in bookselling in the mass-market, non-literary, non-specialist area. But I think that misses the point. Look back at our birth in 1982, and then indeed follow our history through the years that followed – we were an independent bookseller ourselves, and at first a very, very small independent bookseller indeed. To stay with the example that Paul Baggaley quotes, when the people who ran the High Hill bookshop heard we were to open a branch in competition with them in Hampstead, they poured public scorn on us through the pages of the local Hampstead press, labelling us a bumped-up, financially precarious newcomer.

However, it was not us who were precarious, it was them. There was no reason whatsoever why they should not have tied down the Hampstead literary market for themselves, and secured it for ever, and irrevocably so. After all, they had been trading there for almost thirty years before we arrived on their patch. But they hadn’t secured that market. They hadn’t tied it down. We arrived, and we were simply better than they were. Much better. We were far more heavily and widely stocked than them, and far better staffed, and far better sited, and we were open for incomparably longer hours. So, we opened, and after all their insults, in very short order they closed down. They gave up. High Hill fled. We had won.

And what enabled us to do that, to defeat them like that, to drive them away? It’s simple. Above all else, of course, there was the marked superiority of our offer. But that aside, we did it by me, yet again, personally guaranteeing the rent to the landlord, and by me tramping around the City, day in and day out, trying to source access to more debt and more equity in order to get our new branch open, and riding the blows, and taking the turn-downs, and then, in the end, succeeding in getting our money and getting another branch on its way.

Extracted from The Face Pressed Against a Window by Tim Waterstone published by Atlantic Books, copyright © Tim Waterstone, 2019. Read our interview with Tim Waterstone about the book here.