With no discounting, no three-for-twos, barely any returns and staff earning approximately twice the going rate—Daunt Books is not your typical mini-chain. Currently celebrating its 20th anniversary, it has, according to its founder James Daunt, enjoyed like-for-like growth for every one of those 20 years and is looking forward to hitting a turnover of approximately £10m next year.
Hearing how the seven-shop company has achieved this in tough trading conditions and against competition from the chains and the internet is like receiving a master class in independent bookselling.
Despite this, however, Daunt is not someone who likes to shout about what he does, preferring instead to keep a low profile. He has an appealing dislike of self-aggrandising "personality" interviews in the trade press and is frankly happier cycling between the shops and attending to detail. But of course, as everyone who has sat down with him knows, he has advice and opinions that set him apart from many of his fellow booksellers, and which are invaluable to anyone considering setting up their own bookshop.
Daunt sums up his formula for success as good systems plus good staff. If that sounds too dry and does not do justice to the richness of his stores, then he would add that one allows the other.
"Having the right system liberates you. One of the curiosities of our industry is how inefficient it is, particularly on the retailing side. If you look at the sort of systems out there, how good are they? In 2010, can you run a large multiple retailer with a Dos-based system? That's like saying we're going to set up a fantastic taxi fleet but we're only going to use Morris Minors."
He believes that if you have good systems, delivering the right books into the stores, "that allows you, as a bookseller, to spend your time on the shopfloor, not sitting in front of a computer with your head stuck in the Morris Minor, tinkering with the oil. You want to drive the thing—and when you press the accelerator you want it to go faster".
His stores use the US system Wordstock, which the company has adapted over the years to suit its needs. But he argues that systems take you only so far—the other crucial element is staff. Daunt is a great believer in investing in staff and frequently praises Barnes & Noble for doing just this.
"I'm not saying we're perfect but if you talk to our staff you'll find them exceptionally knowledgeable, well-read, intelligent and resourceful. Bookselling needs those kinds of people. The thing that continues to drive this company is staff. We lose very few people—some staff have been here from the very beginning. But if those people are going to be working with me in 10 years' time, you have to meet their aspirations to educate their children and have a car and a mortgage."
Which is why pay for Daunt's 35 staff is considerably higher than elsewhere. This is possible because Daunt works on a different ratio to competitors. "We're all in a ratio business—rent to sales, that kind of thing—but the most important one is sales per employee. And our figure is much higher than other bookshops, and that's about systems again—the nuts and bolts that underpin the business."
Daunt's stores are different in many ways. There is none of the loud promotional messages of larger chains, whose default setting is one of permanent sales and giveaways. "We don't despoil our books by putting stickers on them," he says. "We don't use price as a marketing tool. As a concept, three-for-two goes completely against the grain of how I like buying books."
Subscribing new titles is different too. The initial sub comes direct from publishers or distributors and the rest from wholesalers. "Subbing with me is really easy. If it's a brand name I take 10, if it's not, I take one. I don't think about it. When I get the books in, that's when I react. What I should not be doing is pre-judging, trying to make a decision three or six months before a book is published. We really want to smell a book before we go for it."
The company's seventh shop was opened in Cheapside in the City at the beginning of October. This is an experiment for Daunt as it is his first shop away from a family-oriented location. But many elements of the store are the same, such as its long, tempting runs of face-out displays which seem to include every new release.
"Books are beautiful, really beautiful, and the quality and standard of book covers has gone up," says Daunt. "As booksellers, we should be displaying those books to their best possible effect." Nor does he rule out more. "You need a diversity of shops, which we have now—but if one of our people wants to open a shop somewhere, even outside London, we will certainly look."
He may love the jackets, but he is not happy with everything publishers do, particularly pricing. He believes some publishers inflate prices so much that it puts certain titles out of the reach of a small number of independents whose customers would be prepared to pay a reasonable full price. But interestingly, he does not want printed prices to come off books. "That would be a cataclysmic disaster," he says. "A substantial number of independent booksellers would go bust. There's something fair about the fact of a printed price—once that is gone we have no legitimacy with our prices. We would lose trust."
Trust is what Daunt's has built up with his customers over the years. Tim Waterstone says: "I like James Daunt's bookshops very much indeed. They remind me of the early Waterstone's—charming and expert staff, intelligent and full ranging, and a most pleasant ambience. They are lovely places."
From banking to books
Born in Islington, north London, in 1963, the son of a high-ranking civil servant, James Daunt boarded at Sherborne and became a purser on cruise ships out of Miami during his gap year where his English accent proved invaluable. He read History at Cambridge and with no specific direction in mind joined J P Morgan "partly because it was New York". But after four years his then partner, now wife, Katy, was ready to move and he recalls: "My job had given me everything that I imagined a job could. I knew if I was going to do something else it had to be something for myself. My interests were reading and travel, and at that time there was a clear opportunity in bookselling."
And so Daunt Books for Travellers was born with its, by now familiar, country sections that include cultural histories and novels as well as guidebooks. Brett Wolstencroft, a friend from university, joined him and is still a familiar face that can be seen darting around the ground floor of the Marylebone store.
After Belsize Park and South End Road opened, Daunt paused and made some important decisions. "I knew that if I was going to make it work, I had to have a model that would see me through the bad times. We tried different approaches in each shop, so I know, for example, what happens if you check in orders by box, rather than by title—I know what errors appear in your inventory."
Home is in Hampstead and he has two children, Molly, 13 and Eliza, seven, not forgetting the dogs, Rufus and Charlie. He is well-known for a love of the Middle East and holidays are frequently to interesting, off-the-beaten track places—Ethiopia this year, Turkey's Kaçkar Mountains last year. That's all fine—but don't the kids just want a really cool waterslide sometimes? He smiles. "Well, we do have a telly now. We didn't have one for quite a while. But we've got one that works now, as opposed to a snowstorm one. And yes, they do watch 'The X Factor'."
This feature first appeared in The Bookseller 3rd December 2011.