Meeting The Big Man

Bit of a red letter day on Tuesday. I met Tim Waterstone. OK, that sounds a bit like we went out for a drink, or we had a meeting where I pitched him our bookshop plan. I actually met him briefly at a talk and book signing he gave (where I broke our ‘no new books rule’. Tut tut). I’m not sure who or what I was expecting – but I guess in my own mind the man credited with single-handedly changing the nature of bookselling in this country was going to be a brash, dynamic, aggressive man – and for some reason I thought he was going to be 50ish. Tim Waterstone was certainly dynamic – and a very entertaining speaker. My initial impression though was of a favourite uncle (or rather great uncle – Tim is in his mid 60s). He was self-effacing and softly-spoken. Many of his anecdotes belied his strong love and passion for his family. His revelation (to me anyway) that he was clinically deaf communicated an unanticipated vulnerability completely at odds with what I was expecting. However, as the talk went on, what began to come across very strongly was a very hard-edged, driven and passionate individual who had – for many years – pursued with single-minded ruthlessness the goal of building up Waterstone’s. The story of Waterstone’s – for those who don’t know it (and I didn’t) is worth recounting. He was sacked by WHSmith in 1982 at the age of 41, with £6,000 redundancy to his name, and a wife and 6 kids to support. In firing him, the WHSmith Chairman told him “I don’t mind much what you do now.” before adding, as an afterthought “Maybe we’d prefer it if you didn’t open any bookshops”. At this point WHSmith had 40% of the UK book market (difficult to believe). From this point on, and driven by what he cheerfully admits to be “psychological issues” which translated into an almost pathological desire to destroy WHSmith’s market share, Waterstone’s began its meteoric rise, culminating in a failed attempt to takeover WHSmith. It is interesting (to me anyway) that one crucial element that allowed Waterstones to succeed was the Net Book Agreement. Nowadays, if some aggressive start-up opened opposite Borders, they could simply brutally discount or run endless 3-for-2s in a war of attrition. But in those days, with no discounts allowed, Waterstones was able to take on WHSmith simply in the art of selling books. The masterstroke was to recruit staff who were qualified, passionate and knowledgeable about literature – transforming bookselling into a retail experience where that passion and enthusiasm communicated directly to customers – and translated into ever-increasing sales and market share. The one big thing I take from all this is – bookselling is mostly about people, the ones selling and the ones buying, and the way they connect. I’m reading Tim Waterstone’s book “Swimming Against the Tide” and really enjoying it – but not for the reasons I thought. As a “business success book” (a subject on which I feel qualified to judge because I must have read over 200 self-help, business success books in my time) it is, frankly, a bit of a disappointment (sorry Tim). Perhaps I’ve read so much of this stuff, that – really – another treatise on the genius of the Wal-Mart founders, Branson, Dyson, et al is a bit of a well-worn path. However, the bits of bookselling and the Waterstone’s experience are tremendously inspirational – and therefore priceless as we count down to opening the shop. Here’s a guy who walked the walked. One of breed of entrepreneurs who changed the business landscape in this country in the 80s and 90s, and is a big part of the modern book world. Despite his declaration for the need for utter ruthlessness in the pursuit of your dreams, he comes over as a genuinely nice guy, something that anyone who ever worked for him will testify to. I was inspired to meet him, and came away buzzing with ideas. Obviously, I bought his book, and naturally he signed it. But he also wrote and signed a good luck message for Mostly Books, and when we open, you can bet that this will be hanging prominently on display. Back to reality – there’s the small matter of the POS system to sort out this week. Any advice gratefully accepted... category tags: mbbookshop


  1. I'm aware of several authors following your blog with interest... is there any way we can get in touch with you directly e.g. via email?

  2. Anonymous8:38 pm

    I'm excited to read the next chapter of the bookshop story. Did you get your POS kit? Have you really bought no more books? Will there be coffee?
    (GH BTW)

  3. POS system in the bag - and we have a domain registered and ready to go. This will provide an email address for people to get in touch - apologies for teh delay in this Kate, and soon as it's working, I'll send you an email.