When Sir Tim Waterstone was sacked by WH Smith in 1981, the then chairman Simon Hornby told him that he didn’t really mind what he did next. “Though we wouldn’t want you to go straight out and open a load of bookshops in competition with us,” Waterstone recalls Hornby saying. “That we would stop. We’d stop that.”
“I knew exactly what I was going to do. I went off and did it. I was angry, but at the same time exhilarated… And that was how Waterstones, finally, was born.”
I meet Tim Waterstone, 79 years-old, in The Garrick club in London, early on a Friday morning, where we speak about his soon-to-be-published memoir, A View From The Window. In it he tells the full Waterstones story, from his childhood in Sussex to the birth of a revolutionary British retail chain, and on to the store’s disastrous takeover by HMV in 1998.
He now lives in Holland Park. Twice divorced with eight children, he is currently married to TV and film producer Rosie Alison.
For a wealthy entrepreneur (Waterstone hates that word) he doesn’t embody any of the usual qualities you would expect. Quiet and unassuming, he’s miles away from Richard Branson or other show-offs.
“I am inherently private, I’m not Phillip Green, you know.”
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
A View From The Window exists in two discrete parts. The first is a touching memoir about his childhood; the second a detailed explanation of the Waterstones’ business model. Part one begins with a particularly difficult encounter with his father, a Second World War drummer turned tea-broker. One of his earliest memories, Tim says, is when his father returned home on leave during the war. He was three years old, and when his father who was “a complete stranger” to him arrived at his house he said: “Go away. We were happy without you. Go away.” Waterstone thinks his father may have never forgiven him.
He says that particular encounter was something which changed the character of his childhood, and “perhaps thus to shape in part” his life.
There is a strong sense throughout that his troubled relationship with his father was a motivating factor behind his later retail success. This, and his defiance following his sacking from WH Smith explain how Waterstones came to be. When it comes to his father, the new book was, in a sense, “a last word on him.” Waterstone was keen to emphasise that he didn’t wake up every morning of his adult life thinking “I’m going to prove this to my father.” But, it “was a certain form of revenge.”
It would be reductive to interpret the genesis of Waterstone’s entire career from this relationship. The drive propelling Waterstones, he says, was that he was determined to “have a go of it” – realising his vision for Waterstones – “because I was absolutely certain I was right. And I was right.”
“Required: Experienced Booksellers for a new bookshop – Waterstone’s – in Old Brompton Road. Opening in September. The first of many. Our object is to have the best literary bookshops in the land, staffed by the best, happiest, literary booksellers.”
That was the advertisement Tim Waterstone ran in the Evening Standard, in July 1982, two months before his first store was due to open in South Kensington. Almost immediately he recruited four booksellers from Hatchards, Picadilly (now owned by Waterstones, naturally).
Waterstones had almost immediate success – “it caught the public so quickly.” What made Waterstones different from the rest of the industry? He always comes back to one thing. From the very first advertisement and his first four hires something was encoded in the brand — hire young, exciting people, who were bookish (“but not bookworms”) and give them the freedom and encouragement to sell the books they wanted to sell. “It was so obvious what we were trying to do… Selling a cartload of books to an enthusiastic public.” He keeps coming back to that, the DNA of the brand – whatever that might be.
He reflects on the wisdom of Walmart’s founder, Sam Walton. “Go the other way,” he quotes Walton. “So that’s exactly what I did.”
The bookselling industry of the seventies in Britain was a gloomy mess. WH Smith, the market leader, was retreating from intellectualism and “high-mindedness”, turning to selling cheap stationary, toys, music and films. Waterstone’s vision was clear, and different. His contempt for what WH Smith became is obvious. Waterstones was established to be the antidote to that “dumbing down period.”
Not only that, but it would be staffed by young and intelligent graduates. “If you interviewed 100 members of the staff individually about what we were trying to do, you’d end up with the identical mission statement.”
* * *
Funding the first store was a struggle of inordinate proportion. Having repeatedly failed to get any money for the venture Tim Waterstone was advised to go see a certain NatWest manager in Covent Garden. After his presentation the manager told him he was “either a madman or a genius” but “he didn’t mind much either way as he was retiring on Tuesday.” And Waterstone was given just enough for the first shop in South Kensington.
The first stores were all funded in much the same way – “you’re scrabbling the funds for each store.” Was there a point at which you felt like you didn’t need to worry anymore, I asked. No, he told me bluntly. But from a standing start, with just £6000 in the bank, it grew and grew to having eighty-six bookshops opened in the first 10 years. It was “absolutely at the epicentre of that 1980s revolution.”
Setting up a store like Waterstones during the early 80s was a real blessing, he says. “One of the things that did help us was the Thatcher years, in that they were very pro-entrepreneurial encouragement. The climate was very good for us to raise money at that time.” The finance part is boring to talk about, he claims, but the story of Waterstones isn’t complete without it.
* * *
There’s a fanatical love of literature evident throughout his memoir, from his earliest days visiting the local bookstore in Crowborough, in Sussex, to his days teaching english before going up to Cambridge in the late 50s. But what is really striking is that he does not get bogged down in the sentimentality of it. Sure, literature has an enduring quality and Waterstones was about selling great books to interesting people. But that vision depends on business sense. “Perfect staff, perfect stock, perfect control,” was his mantra.
In 2018 we could do with more of that balance between high culture, bookishness and an acute business mind. Waterstone quotes John Mitchinson, his former head of marketing: “It’s not elitist to be on the side of intelligence, or experimentation, of individual brilliance. That was what Waterstones, at its best, was trying to do.” But at the same time he consistently emphasises how that intellectualism, and a simple love of books, is insufficient. A well-structured business model and perfect financial management is needed, or the literary vision perishes.
* * *
He is blunt and unsentimental on the travails of local, independent bookstores – some which he put out of business.
He recalls walking into a local bookstore in North London just a few days ago. He told them that as an independent bookshop, they would be absolutely fine: “You’ll survive.”
But they won’t be fine, he told me. They won’t be fine because their store wasn’t big enough, they didn’t have enough books, and the staff linger behind the counter the whole time a customer is in there. “They’re ripe for the taking,” he said.
A View From The Window includes a section on Hampstead’s former independent book store – High Hill Books. “We put them out of business when we set up the Waterstones there, because it wasn’t good enough.” He had no problem putting bookstores out of business when they didn’t serve the market sufficiently, he says. Hampstead, a bastion of the North London novel reading (and sometimes writing) set, wasn’t being done justice by High Hill. And within a very short amount of time after Waterstones’ arrival on the high street, High Hill were out of business.
“Did you ever feel bad about it?”
A similar situation arose in Leeds, where he took one look at the famous independent store there and thought “this is absolutely hopeless.”
“So what did we do? We opened to them as close as possible and they closed almost immediately, and they had been there since Dickens’ time, almost — it’s one of the reasons Alan Bennett doesn’t like Waterstones…”
He hesitated before taking on Edinburgh, however. Edinburgh was such a bookish place, and Thin’s, the famous Edinburgh bookseller was good, but possibly not quite good enough. When Waterstones moved in “Thin’s were absolutely apoplectic. they said there was an unspoken agreement between English booksellers and Scottish booksellers that English booksellers wouldn’t move in”
Thin’s were put out of business in 2002.
* * *
There is something remarkable about Waterstones’ magnetic quality in its early years, and how as a company it could exist as comfortably in South Kensington and Hampstead as it could in Gateshead and Wolverhampton. In the memoir Tim Waterstone recalls and quotes a piece written by author Satham Sanghera in The Times last year.
“Its [Waterstones’] survival really matters to Britain. I am not talking here about the whimsical romance of what books mean for writers, but what a bookshop means for any community, economically and culturally. The survival of a really great branch of Waterstones in my home town of Wolverhampton, for instance, even as the city centre suffers from an epidemic of empty shop units, is more than an important cultural symbol, it encourages reading, literacy and intellectual exploration in a way that the web never will be able to.”
But what is it about Waterstones that somehow ensured its own survival? Not only across vastly different geographical regions, but also through times of huge political and cultural change? Apart from that disastrous venture with HMV, Waterstones thrived through Thatcher to Blair to Cameron, from Britain’s lurches to the left, the right and back to the centre, and through the technological revolution too. How did it maintain that constant presence described fondly by Sanghera?
“I don’t know, has literature got anything to do with it?” he says. “Has the UK really changed that much? No I can’t answer that. It’s got something to do with the DNA.”
* * *
When writing about his time spent studying at Cambridge University, he says the three most important books from the 20th century to him are Mrs. Dalloway, The Good Soldier and The Leopard.
The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, tracks the change in Sicilian life during the unification of Italy. It contains the famous line: “Everything must change so that everything can stay the same.” I asked him this means anything to him, and the enduring quality of his bookstores.
“I don’t know what that means” he laughed. “Whatever the political climate I think we discovered the need for storytelling, the love of books is always there,” he says, and looks somewhat dissatisfied with his answer.
The overwhelming impression he conveys is of there being something more to the story than just a love of literature. An enterprising quality, and good business sense that is required to prop up the genuine belief he had in the importance of selling great books to likeminded people. That’s what was at the heart of the Waterstones story, and that’s what Tim Waterstone understood as he set out on his venture.
One point he labours is that his mindset was never one determined to make a fortune – although he made himself extremely wealthy. “That’s not what it was, I absolutely promise you. People who start a business, all you really want out of it is to prove you’re right, when everybody is screaming at you that you’re wrong.”
That there is still a Waterstones on nearly every high street in Britain goes to show that he was probably right about something. A simple mission – to sell great books to interested people – underpinned by good business sense was enough to revolutionise Britain’s bookselling industry.