Let’s get one thing clear: bookshops are a good thing. Waterstones — even putting aside the abandonment of its apostrophe — is a good thing. James Daunt, the man who has turned Waterstone’s from a basket case into a profitable enterprise, is a good thing.
But what the company has done in Southwold, Rye and Harpenden is naughty. And it’s more than just a storm in an overpriced Emma Bridgewater teacup. Waterstones has opened up shops that purport to be both local and independent, when they are neither. In Southwold, the branch is called Southwold Books, in Rye it’s The Rye Bookshop and in Harpenden, Harpenden Books. The colour-scheme, layout, and signs all look as if they belong to independent shops and no reference to Waterstones can be found in the shop.
This is not the same as Coca-Cola buying wacky Innocent smoothies or indeed Waterstone’s itself buying the venerable Hatchards. In both these cases, the acquirer perfectly reasonably kept the long-established brand and ran them as independent businesses.
No, this is akin to Tesco selling Rosedene Farm fruit, when in fact Rosedene strawberries come from both Kent and Morocco. It is a sleight of hand. And Waterstones has done it specifically in towns where there is, among many consumers, an anti-brand bias.
Now, I need to confess that I have vellum in the game. It was while visiting Southwold to research a piece on business rates that I stumbled across Southwold Books. I was trying to speak to all local retail shopkeepers to get their views and was struggling to find who owned Southwold Books, when I discovered it was, in fact, a Waterstones. I then tweeted my surprise, and all hell broke loose.
— Harry Wallop (@hwallop) February 19, 2017
The reason why it is an issue in Southwold is the reason why I was there: business rates. The average shop in Southwold is facing an increase in business rates of 177 per cent, the very highest in the country. Business rates are calculated based on rental value and rents have soared in this pretty Suffolk town for two connected reasons. An influx of second-home owners have bought properties in the area, attracted in part by the lovely High Street full of independent shops. Ironically, this has attracted large, national retailers. The high street is a victim of its own success. In the last three years, WH Smith, Tesco, Costa, Fat Face and Joules have all opened up shop in Southwold. And now Waterstones. And, in turn, this has pushed up business rents even more.
Earlier today, Ross Clark suggested on Coffee House that ‘some on the liberal-left.. have such an unmoveable prejudice against international capitalism that even a mid-size business like Waterstones offends their sensibilities.’ What a load of bunkum.
The locals are not fervent anti-capitalists. Far from it. They are upset because they used to have three independent books shops. Now they have Wells, an independent gift and bookshop, which has a sign outside saying: ‘We’re not Waterstones in Disguise.’ And Waterstones.
Of course, Waterstones in a town is better than no bookshop. But the company knew full well people weren’t keen on big chains in the town. So it hid its true identity. Mr Daunt admitted as much on Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘We are coming into quite sensitive high streets with predominantly independent retailers on them and we wish to behave as they do.’
Well that’s all fine and dandy. But you can’t behave as local shops. They can’t turn to their Russian billionaire owner, as Waterstones can, to get their business rates paid. No one is really objecting to the Waterstones per se, but the fact the company wasn’t brave enough to just put its own name above the door.