‘Sacralising’ the bookshop

Test of Time

Test of Time edited by Andrew Holgate and Honor Wilson-Fletcher (Waterstones 1999)

I was going through some boxes of old Waterstone’s stuff last night and came upon the book pictured above. Test of Time was an accompaniment to a promotion we ran around classic books. We asked a panel of the great and the good to define what they meant by a ‘classic’ and to choose their top tens. We took their lists, chose a hundred books  and ran a major promotion around them. The media loved it and so did the public, we sold a ton of books.

The introduction to the book was written by Professor John Sutherland. It was obviously mostly about the concept of a classic but the passage I cite below caused some interesting debate in the Waterstone’s marketing department of the time:

There is something enormously reassuring about books. Some pre-industrial things last, they tell us. This, as it happens, is the motif which Waterstone’s has chosen to stress in its marketing operations. Go into a ‘big W’ and what you enter is a kind of mini-cathedral dedicated to the book as timeless icon. It’s a consciously different marketing strategy from that currently being imported from the US by Border’s Inc. Their trick is to ‘bland down’ the book (‘desacralise’ it , as we used to say in our hot Marxist youth). You go into Border’s, buy a paper, buy a coffee and Danish, buy a book – no difference. There’s nothing special about these bundles of printed materials. Books? No big deal – do you want cream with that? It will be interesting to see which of the two strategies – reverencing books or normalizing them – works better.”
From the Introduction to Test of Time published by Waterstone’s. (Edited by Andrew Holgate and Honor Wilson-Fletcher 1999)

At the time, the big threat was not Amazon or the supermarkets but Borders (and the oft-rumoured but never realised intervention of Barnes & Noble). The debate was all about the contrast between these two brand positions and how they might play out. More than once it was asked; should Waterstone’s take a more inclusive stance?

As it turned out Waterstone’s size following the Dillons merger dictated that it do just that, lessening the blue water between the two brands. I’m not sure,  given the size of that business, that it could have done anything else but I am pretty clear that the ‘normalizing’ approach put the Waterstone’s brand out of sync with the clientele that had become native to it.

As James Daunt arrives at Waterstone’s I wonder if he will be thinking of how to re-‘sacralise’ its brand (which is certainly the approach taken at his own eponymous chain) and if so how is he thinking of doing it?

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2 thoughts on “‘Sacralising’ the bookshop

  1. I remember the days of Waterstone’s as ‘cathedrals of books.’ I loved the atmosphere in the shops and the kudos of being a Waterstone’s bookseller. I actually wanted a teeshirt so that I would be identifiable as a member of staff. I still have my black badge and there are a couple of notes clipped to the back of it of books to I had to order from 1999 when I left the company. I enjoyed talking about books with customers, colleagues and reps. Whenever area managers came to visit, they asked us what we were reading and what we thought of the books. The book itself and the bookseller’s interaction with our customers were what made Waterstone’s different.

    That passion for books and bookselling is still there in places in Waterstone’s. I see them when I visit my Waterstone’s buyers. That little flame is the thing James Daunt needs to nurture. Without it, all he has is a lot of expensive real estate to service and he might as well fill it with chocolate. There is something special about a book and about bookshop customers. The famous Waterstone’s heavy book buyers wanted to see new, interesting and invigorating books on each visit. I used to spend a fortune in Waterstone’s myself. I don’t any more. The books don’t interest me and the individual branches are too similar to one another. Those are the things James Daunt has to address and he can do them by allowing managers and section buyers in the shops as much freedom as possible.

  2. it’s an interesting question. i’m going to guess with the book of the month club saving borders, that they’ll keep with the books-are-every-day-things. though i don’t know if that makes them any less sacred to be honest.

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