Tim Waterstone | 'It was very cleansing to write, but also to face the ugly stuff'

Tim Waterstone | 'It was very cleansing to write, but also to face the ugly stuff'

The Face Pressed Against a Window is a look back through the life and career of Tim Waterstone, as told by the founder of the eponymous bookshop chain. It is a remarkable account of, perhaps, the most important recent period in British bookselling, but also a genuinely arresting portrayal of the man behind it.

"The more I wrote, the more I remembered," Waterstone says. "It was very cleansing to write, but also to face the ugly stuff, particularly around my father." The book begins with Waterstone’s father—returning briefly to the family home during the Second World War and meeting his reluctant son at the door—and it is his shadow that looms large over everything. Their relationship was not a happy one. "Not once," writes Waterstone, "in all the years of my childhood did he as much as touch me. Nor did he express affection for me in any other manner. Not once did he give me praise. Nor, if it comes to that, did he do so in my adulthood. Not once." Yet the bookshop chain carries his name—"Waterstone’s was me having the last word on him. It was proof of my worth." It is little wonder he has tried to buy the chain back so many times—having first let go of it to W H Smith in the early 1990s—and that he remains so closely bound to it. It is more than a business.

Waterstone’s interest in books began not at home—where there were but a few—but in independent bookshop The Book Club, located in the East Sussex village of Crowborough. Run by the "dauntingly severe Miss Santoro", for the young Waterstone it was the quality of her book range, her marketing outreach, her personal knowledge of her customers and the warmth of the shop, that laid the foundations for Waterstone’s. "What I got from her was the ambition to sell the books. She just loved them, and there was this real drive behind it." More a browser than a buyer, Waterstone soon began delivering books via bicycle, before being replaced by a van. Nevertheless, the bookselling bug had been caught.

From delivery boy, Waterstone’s route into bookselling was circuitous. Cambridge first, then to India, followed by a marketing job with Allied Breweries in London before finally landing in the books business with W H Smith. Was Waterstone just conducting research? Of course he was.

"This seemed to me to be one final piece of experience that would serve me very well indeed when the time for Waterstone’s came along, for it would also give me an inside look at [W H] Smith’s book retail operation, which was going to be interesting," he writes. Waterstone stayed at WHS for nine years, before being axed after an unsuccessful expansion into the US. WHS chair Simon Hornby’s parting advice was not to open up a chain of bookshops in competition. "That, we would stop," Waterstone was advised.

Of course, it was the £6,000 redundancy that unlocked the finance for the first Waterstone’s, on Old Brompton Road, in 1982. There were hiccups, of course. Waterstone left the first day’s takings on the Tube, for example. But the plan—long in gestation—was solid. He says: "I knew exactly what I wanted to do—very heavy stock-holding, with very literary staff. What was unusual about the plan was the funding model, with money raised on a shop by shop basis. Occasionally we raised enough for three branches, but mostly it was branch, by branch, by branch."

The trade was not helpful. Publishers were initially reluctant to take a bet on this upstart, with its uncertain funding model and demand for unprecedented levels of stock, while the Booksellers Association refused to accept its membership. As the UK’s biggest bookseller W H Smith held huge power in the trade—even if its own business was hampered, says Waterstone, by a feudal structure and "embarrassingly deferential" management.

However, with Penguin and Oxford University Press on side, Waterstone’s began building, hiring key staff from Hatchards, including the influential Julian Toland, as well as a steady line of booksellers new to the sector that have since built careers in the business, from publishers John Mitchinson, Paul Baggaley and Will Atkinson (his current publisher), to the chain’s longest-serving manager Martin Latham, to serial rebel Robert Topping, to authors such as David Mitchell, to the well regarded David McRedmond, now c.e.o. of the Irish postal service AN Post. It was these recruits, says Waterstone, who built the chain. "They took on the DNA. Nobody ever had to say what it was, they just got on top of it, and most of them ran the stores as serious businesses. They liked the responsibility—there was nobody above them apart from me, Julian, and an elderly financial controller."

It was an exhilarating period, with Waterstone’s disruptive and competitive, not just with WHS but also with independents, many of which were, says Waterstone, moribund. Where there was a really effective literary bookseller in existence, Waterstone’s kept well away, but others were less lucky. "We didn’t behave that well in some ways, we went for everything, we didn’t muck around with prices, but we did early-sell, we were very aggressive and, of course, the press lapped it up. We were deeply unpopular [in the trade] but the public loved us."

In 1990 Waterstone accepted investment in the chain from WHS that culminated in its sale in 1993, beginning a long period of mismanagement and poor performance. Waterstone does not regret this decision, explaining that WHS’ plan for the chain was respectful, and its initial offer brought with it 40 new bookshops, then called Sherratt & Hughes, that WHS had launched to rival Waterstone’s. It also meant that some of Waterstone’s early investors could cash in their chips. He also left, and for a number of years the chain operated successfully under its then m.d. Alan Giles, even as the Net Book Agreement vanished and Amazon arrived. But when WHS’ fortunes began to wane, its internal battles also impacted Waterstone’s.

Back in the game
Waterstone tried to take back control: first trying to buy WHS in its entirety, then bidding just for Waterstones, backed by EMI (owner of Dillons and HMV); leading to the creation of the HMV Group, with Waterstone made chair, and Giles c.e.o. It was at this point that the "vulgarisation" of the chain began, according to Waterstone, as it chased the market for discounted bestsellers. Further bids for the chain were made—from Bertelsmann, Borders and Waterstone, before he left the business again in 2001—followed by two offers from finance group Permira in 2005, before Waterstone returned again in 2006. HMV responded by buying Ottakar’s. It did not work. "I have never witnessed such wanton destruction," he writes of this period.

Still Waterstone hovered, this time enlisting the Russian oligarch Alexander Mamut, who he had met after investing in Russian chain Bookberry. Mamut though bided his time, before buying the stricken business for £53m in 2011, installing James Daunt as its m.d., with a plan that borrowed heavily—and largely successfully—from the strategy Waterstone had shared with Mamut. Earlier this year, it was sold again to US investor Elliott Advisors, with Daunt still at the helm.

Looking back, Waterstone says: "All of those years of HMV trying to ruin it, somehow the original DNA of the company was still there; battered, bruised, kicked in the face, torn ears. But it survived." So is he finally happy with the direction of the business? "It could be more decentralised, but there are big business issues there now. The simplicity that we had is gone," he responds.

One senses he would still like to be involved, though he is guardedly optimistic about the new owner—if history tells us anything, it is that investors mess with the DNA at their peril. "I think Waterstones is safe now," he says, with hesitation.

Knighted earlier this year, Sir Tim Waterstone may still have his face pressed against that window. But he has done Miss Santoro proud—his dad too.