A recent newsworthy event was that Waterstones, arguably the leading High Street brick-and-mortar bookshop here in the UK was to acquire Foyles, a chain of independent bookshops with a storied history.
Ordinarily I would be fairly unimpressed at the homogenisation of the marketplace as I do believe competition fosters the best – indeed, over the last fifteen years or so the number of discrete chains of bookshops has steadily declined through acquisitions. Borders, Dillons, Ottakars… I was even a little disappointed when I visited Hatchard’s in Piccadilly at the recommendation of a friend to find it was a slightly-rebadged Waterstones. Not that that was intrinsically bad… but I’d left the flagship Waterstones store (which I instantly fell in love with) to explore this purported quirky independent.
Returning to the point: the UK retail book market has essentially homogenised into three large players whose stores I do frequent often – a trip down the High Street usually results in popping into all three:
- Waterstones is the “full-fat Coke” of UK bookshops – stores that have wonderful bookish atmospheres that encourage browsing.
- WH Smiths, whose more utilitarian “plain vanilla” shops lack a bit of soul, but WH Smiths has that rich history behind the name, for it was WH Smiths that led the popularisation of fiction back in the Industrial Revolution;
- The Works, a young upstart whose stores are cheap and cheerful, usually packed with items and nick-nacks I have no interest in purchasing but there’s always the chance of a discount steal. Indeed for a long while I did not know that The Works sold books!
Why am I telling you this? Waterstones would have you believe that the acquisition of Foyles is about challenging Amazon as the big intangible behemoth. Whether that’s strictly true (or if it’s a calculated attempt to simply buy up market share) is not really the remit of my blog but it’s a precursor to the point I want to make and started with in the first Book Thoughts post.
But what’s interesting is that each of those three major chains seems to have carved out their own particular part of the book market – Waterstones is perhaps more “premium”; WH Smiths is more in the middle; The Works serves the budget end of the market. And that’s actually a great thing as it serves the entirety of the market with pretty good bookshop coverage – something for everyone!
Not only, in recent times, do I read more physical books while my Kindle gathers dust in a drawer, I find myself purchasing these books in a physical bookshop – usually but not always a Waterstones. Waterstones is certainly not the cheapest place to purchase books but, much like libraries, physical, tangible bookshops I think are important to support.
I’ve actually been one of those people who goes into a bookshop and photographs a book to look it up later. Indeed, throughout University my first port-of-call would be to buy the paperback on Amazon and have it whisked at near-light speed to me via Prime – because it was convenient and I was hardly the most assiduous student, a fact I take no pride in.
But what I’ve noticed more than anything… buying books on Amazon is so mechanical and, if you like, soulless an experience it’s a little disheartening. What Waterstones, especially, but the others do well also, is to foster a sense of discoverability. Browsing in Waterstones is a joyous experience because their stores are near-universally great places. There’s a sense of care and attention, maybe even a bit of personalisation in each when it comes to the table displays and endorsement cards that adorn shelves.
Again, whether that’s a corporate missive or genuine is neither here nor there. This post is not intended to be a treatise on the rights and wrongs, and the motivations of large companies. I’ve had wonderful experiences buying books from Waterstones, chatting to engaged and enthusiastic staff… it’s an experience I feel Amazon cannot replicate. Amazon does a lot well, but this is one thing I feel visiting a physical store cannot compare to.
That’s not to say Waterstones as a company is perfect. I’m aware of stories where they’ve acted what seems to be capriciously in notable times, and they’ve perhaps thrown their weight around as the UK’s dominant bookseller to mistreat authors. And it’s easy to chalk them up as another “big corporation” – this is by no means a total defence of Waterstones, but neither is it a total defence of Amazon. Waterstones may still be the biggest bookshop chain in the UK, and about to grow some more, but even then as a corporate identity Amazon is a truly gargantuan behemoth.
What I am defending is the experience that a physical bookshop gives to its customers – this an experience I am totally in favour of. Waterstones are the totem of what I’d call a welcoming environment for book lovers – not to say independent bookshops are worse, but Waterstones as a brand are cementing their position. And their shops – like all bookshops – are ones we should support as readers.
Physical books are making a surprising comeback, and I’m happy to think about factors other than solely the bottom line on my wallet. I’m happy to pay for the experience of walking into a bookshop and enjoying the experience of being there. Amazon might have the convenience and price factor (and I’m not for one moment saying I’ll never buy a book on Amazon again) but they lack the experience and discoverability that walking around a physical bookshop can provide.
Oh, and the irony among irony? Waterstones’ website is a pale imitation of Amazon – so the battle lines are drawn!