If there is anyone or anything to blame for Chris Laister-Smith's success as a bookseller, it's probably David Copperfield. Having decided that the original plan to become an accountant was not for him, Laister-Smith applied for a job at Waterstones' branch in Birmingham High Street. It came down to two candidates, but the manager was delighted he was reading Dickens and favoured him for the job.
It wasn't the last time David Copperfield had an impact on Laister-Smith's life. He met his future wife at that branch and incorporated the opening lines of the novel into his wedding speech. The cake was in the shape of a copy of the book.
Arguably a Dickens-inspired wedding cake is taking a love of books a little too far, but after a few minutes in Laister-Smith's company it seems a natural thing for him to do. He is evangelical about bookselling and what chains offer the country. During our interview, he scurries off to find a collection of photos from signings during the early '90s (including Baroness Thatcher, Tom O'Connor and Michael Barrymore) to show that celeb tie-ins are hardly a recent trend.
"The thing that stays with me since I started is that I think the company feels it is on a cultural mission," he explains. "Bookshops are important to a local community and play a good role in this country. Publishers and authors do their part and all of us put together something that is unique in retail. It's a wonderful market for people to express what they love. You do not get people who work in Next enthusing about a scarf.'
It is this enthusiasm, Laister-Smith believes, that safeguards the future of chains in the face of a squeeze from supermarkets and the internet. "The internet is fantastic and very useful but it can only go so far—people like to touch and flick through what they are buying," he says. "People want to be surprised by something that they see in store. While internet [retailers] have grown and refined their offers, bookshops haven't withered away dramatically. They provide a cultural focus point for the community."
A Brum job
Birmingham is not bookshop-heavy, with a few Waterstones, a Borders and one W H Smith scattered around the city, so the New Street branch really stands out. A converted bank building, it is a spectacular space. A restored staircase forms its centre and a massive sweep of fiction shelving hugs the left hand wall.
The typical customer is someone on their lunchbreak who has an hour to find the new Jamie Oliver or Michael Palin, he says. "But it's what we put around those sorts of titles that matters."
This is where the recommendation bays come into play. Peppered around the store, they are filled with the staff's own choices and a brief note saying why customers should read each book. "It's all about making sure we are pulling out things that are not getting all the press, but are proven to be fascinating and a good read," he says. "One member of staff wanted to put a Keats book that he was reading on our recommendations. It worked because it was reminding people of the great books out there."
One example is Chelsea footballer Ashley Cole's autobiography sitting in a bay. At first glance it seems bizarre to find one of the most critically-panned sports books of recent years lauded as a "must-read". However, the review accompanying it is both scathing and hilarious, and leads customers to read other recommended titles instead. Such touches give the store a personality that others often lack.
It is this personality, most likely an extension of Laister-Smith's own enthusiasm, which underpins the success of the store. "It works because of the people who work here," he says. "Systems and technology have changed through the years but there has been a constant, lovely culture. When people come in here they have a good experience. That's because of the staff who work hard and listen to what a customer wants. We are good shopkeepers, I think, and it's as simple as that. When things are difficult we have a good bunch of people who pull us through. Retail is a wonderful way to make a living."
So wonderful that Laister-Smith is hard-pressed to name the highlight of his career to date. After several false starts he finally settles on the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows only two months ago—hardly a stress-free period for a bookseller. "It was pouring with rain outside that night," he says. "I was dressed up as Dumbledore and other members of the team were dressed as the other characters. We got 400 people in the store and they were doing quizzes and special countdowns and it was just great fun.
"I looked around the store and thought to myself 'this is a great moment'," he says, laughing.