Tim Waterstone: 'Childhood scars pushed me to create bookshop chain'

Tim Waterstone: 'Childhood scars pushed me to create bookshop chain'

A difficult relationship with his father was one of the factors which pushed Tim Waterstone to succeed in establishing the bookshop chain that bears his name, the retail entrepreneur has revealed in an extract from his forthcoming memoir, published in the Daily Mail. Waterstone also reveals shocking details of sexual abuse at the hands of a headmaster at his prep school.

In the extract, Waterstone says the "damage" of his relationship with his WW2 veteran father remains with him; his father "never once attempted a physically affectionate gesture towards me". "I saw other children laughing with their fathers, being picked up, swung about, pushed on swings, kicking a football, carried on shoulders. I wanted that for us, too. But never in all the years of my childhood did he as much as touch me, nor give me any praise. Nor, if it comes to that, did he in my adulthood," he remembers.

"Without the trauma of that relationship, I truly believe I would never have broken out and fought the battles I did to create and succeed with Waterstones. That wasn’t just for me. It was for my father, too. Waterstones was me having the last word. Why else would I have named it after me?", he asks. "And, of course, it was named after my father as well. I was hurling bottles at my childhood, which I could neither forgive nor forget."

Waterstone also reveals being abused at the hands of a headmaster at his prep school, Warden House, near Crowborough, East Sussex, "a dreadful, cheap boys’ prep school on the outskirts of Crowborough, which was, even by the low standards of those days, an absolute disgrace." He admits to being "painfully jocular and trivial and false about the things that had gone on at Warden House" in an interview much later in life – until receiving a letter from a woman whose husband committed suicide because of the abuse he suffered at the same school.

The extract also reveals the impact two bookshops had on Waterstone's life: an independent in Crowborough called The Book Club run by a Miss Santoro, and Heffers in Cambridge. Of the former he says: "The values that later became our stores’ very lifeblood were being tested out there and then before my eyes: the well-stocked shelves, the comfort and warmth of her shop, her extraordinary personal knowledge of books, her close links with the community."

While reading English at Cambridge, where he was friends with the comedian Peter Cook, he visited Heffers one afternoon and had a “moment of epiphany – the epiphany as to what, in time, I would do with my working life’.

A further extract tells the better known story of how he was fired by W H Smith for whom he had been running an abortive US venture. The then Chairman of WHS Sir Simon Hornby apparently said to him: ‘We don’t really mind what you do now, though we wouldn’t want you to go straight out and open a load of bookshops in competition with us. That we would stop. We’d stop that."

Which, notes Waterstone, "was all the challenge I needed". He recalls the opening of his first branch in Old Brompton Road in 1982 when the first day’s takings were left on the train, and has this to say about the chain’s years before the arrival of the current m.d. James Daunt:  ‘I watched Waterstones quite simply implode after a programme of destruction under various new owners. Everywhere there were empty shelves, increasingly shabby interiors, a puzzled and dismayed public, and staff morale that was utterly destroyed….These days, however, the company is newly in the safe hands of Elliott Advisors, the UK arm of the New York activist hedge fund Elliott Management — very, very smart people. Ambitious and single-minded in pursuit of cash generation they may be, but they are buying at a time when Waterstones’ fortunes and standing in the book market are again so bright."

He concludes: "I do firmly believe that without us the nation’s cultural health would not have been the same. And I am very proud of that."

Atlantic Books will publish The Face Pressed Against A Window by Tim Waterstone on 7th February. Read Philip Jones' interview with Waterstone about his memoir here.