Waterstones is to open five new bookshops before Christmas – with three named after the area they are based, in the spirit of an independent bookshop.
The new locations are in St Neots, Epsom, Deal in Kent, Weybridge and London’s Blackheath.
The latter three shops are smaller in size and will be named The Deal Bookshop, The Weybridge Bookshop and The Blackheath Bookshop respectively. Stores in St Neot’s and Epsom meanwhile will carry the Waterstones branding.
At the same time, the company revealed it plans to open more shops in 2018, with one in Reigate already signed up and with “several more in advanced negotiation”.
The news means the retailer will have opened 20 new stores since it was bought by Russian oligarch Alexander Mamut from the HMV Group in 2011 and follows Waterstones’ return to profit for the first time under its current ownership earlier this year. At that point, managing director James Daunt told The Bookseller the chain planned to open at least 10 new stores in 2017.
The announcement will inspire confidence in the firm at a time Mamut is reportedly exploring a £250m sale of the chain via corporate financiers N M Rothschild, which surfaced last month.
Waterstones has also been “heavily” investing in its stores in the last few months, with latest refits completed in Cambridge and Exeter and with Aberdeen next on the cards for a makeover in the New Year.
Daunt said: “We have been quietly sticking to our bookselling knitting, making our existing bookshops nicer and now opening new ones at an increasing clip. This brings us up to 20 opened in the last few years, all of them successful and fine testament to the enduring appeal of bookshops.”
The opening of Waterstones in St Neots marks a return to the town for the bookseller after it closed its shop there in 2014. It will now reopen at the same address, but with a completely new interior. The Waterstones in Epsom is also a return to the town for the company after it closed its “much respected” bookshop there in 2011.
At least 20 new jobs will be created as a result of the new openings, with booksellers drawn from the surrounding local areas.
“Waterstones encourages great autonomy in its shops, relying on the enthusiasm and passion for bookselling of its staff to make the shops distinctive and fun,” a spokesperson for the chain said. “Each will offer its own events programme, including reading groups, story times for children and book launches.”
Daunt told The Bookseller that the timing of the openings was unrelated to the fact that the company is up for sale. The firm had been working on signing the leases for several months and that "just like London buses" they had all come at once in December, he said. "Of course it is a good thing to open up before Christmas," the retail chief added. "And it will make by mail bag lighter - I regularly get letters from customers of places like St Neots and Epsom where we once were asking when we are going to return there, and now we are."
Daunt said Waterstones aimed to open shops in "places which currently don't have bookshops and should have" over the next few years and that the closure of several high street bank branches provided a good opportunity for the business to do so. "Those are just about the right size," he said.
The company’s results filed on Companies House earlier this year showed that sales at the chain rose by 4% to £409.1m in the year to 30th April 2016, helping it achieve a pre-tax profit of £9.9m, after finance costs, compared to a pre-tax loss of £4.5m a year earlier.
Last month the Sunday Times cited City sources as saying Rothschild bankers were working on "funding options" for Waterstones but also contacting potential buyers, with several private equity firms studying the business. It linked the situation to the fortunes of Russia's Otkritie bank where Mamut is one of the largest shareholders, saying a new management team has demanded that some of the wealthy businessmen who own the bank hand over assets to plug a hole in its books.
At the time, Daunt described the Sunday Times report as seeming "a sensible enough story to me, though I think the Otkritie angle is a red herring. He [Mamut] will sell us because that is what he does – buys companies, invests, turns them around and then sells them. If he can get the £200m+ for us he will have done very well!"
Mamut bought Waterstones for £53m in 2011.