If you think Waterstones dropping the apostrophe from its name is the worst thing the bookstore chain has ever done, think again. In an era when authenticity has been used to sell everything from pasta sauce in a jar to Donald Trump, the news that the firm has quietly opened three small, unbranded bookshops – in the picturesque towns of Southwold, Rye and Harpenden – has been greeted with dismay. Yes, these three shops look remarkably like independent booksellers, with their pale blue store fronts and dainty signage – but surely what makes the betrayal worse is that they remained under the radar for so long. Southwold Books opened in 2014, the Rye Bookshop a year later, and Harpenden Books in April last year. Or so it seems.
Strangely, locals seemed to be perfectly aware that the bookshops were owned by another company. Last year the Herts Advertiser reported that Harpenden Books was “run by Waterstones” and quoted the company’s managing director, James Daunt, who said he was “delighted to bring a proper bookshop back to Harpenden”. It’s a similar story in Southwold and Rye.
There are genuine reasons to be perturbed at this sort of wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing scenario. Why not open smaller, branded Waterstones stores so unobservant shoppers know exactly what they are getting? More seriously, the forthcoming re-evaluation of business rates is set to pile misery on many small businesses – Southwold is one of the worst affected areas. On average, companies there will see their tax bills increase by a massive 177% from April. It doesn’t take a genius to see that Waterstones has the edge here.
Four years ago I moved to Whitstable, a charming seaside town, much like Rye or Southwold, and stuffed full of independent shops. Shortly before I arrived a similar scandal had beset the town – a coffee shop, Harris + Hoole, had attempted to open, only to be swiftly unmasked as part of a chain, at the time 49% owned by Tesco. (The business has since been bought by Caffè Nero. Do keep up.) Protests took place. A conceptual artist turned up, and under his tutelage, a group of campaigners put Tesco plastic bags on their heads and pretended to suffocate. Harris + Hoole fled with its tail between its legs. Ironically, and barely remarked on, the site is now a JoJo Maman Bébé, the infuriatingly smugly named children’s clothing chain.
Whitstable is divided between those who come out in force at the drop of a plastic bag and protest at anything corporate, and those who regularly and loudly yearn for a Subway and hoot in derision every time an independent coffee shop opens. (They are in the double figures to be fair.)
The fetishisation of independent business at all costs is a real issue for small towns popular with various types of affluent incomers: second-home owners, weekend visitors, tourists. With 12 coffee shops that serve no purpose to locals, and independent business windows full of overpriced designer lamps and “vintage” homeware, many understandably choose to get in their car and drive a short distance to the large Tesco on the outskirts of town. There is also a Sainsbury’s; and just last week an M&S Foodhall and an Aldi opened. Better a well-run chain than a badly run independent.
Because not all chains are created equal. Waterstones is, as chains go, a good one. It runs its stores (and not just the three unbranded ones in question) as fairly independent branches, with managers given autonomy, and stock tailored to local tastes.
Whitstable has a bookshop (two, if you count an excellent and cavernous second-hand one, although that’s just changed hands, so all bets are off). Yes, it’s small, and a large part of it is given over to greetings cards and tchotchkes that are clearly more profitable than actual books. And its contemporary fiction selection could be better. Or at least bigger. But it stocks plenty of books on local history and supports local authors, of whom there are a gaggle and then some.
But at the risk of being run out of town and – more to the point – of being blackballed when my sure-to-be bestseller is finally written, I wish there were a Waterstones in Whitstable. As well as, not instead of – which I am aware is naive in the extreme given the nature of business, corporations and high streets.
Not all small towns are lucky enough to have a bookshop. This is what it comes down to: better a Waterstones than nothing.
This article was sourced from http://webnewsforus.com