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Review – ‘The Face Pressed Against a Window – The Bookseller Who Built Waterstones’.

October 3, 2020 Leave a comment

This is a fine book, particularly if you want to know more about how ‘Waterstone’s the Bookseller’ was built. Waterstones is a great business, and despite many earlier difficulties, it continues to be very good at its business. I do trust that this will continue well into the future.

The book is well written, and the author is keen to speak quite a lot about his own background before the growth of Waterstone’s. I don’t think I’d realised before, but the Waterstone’s book chain was being established from 1982-1993, whilst I was at STL Distribution in Carlisle, Cumbria.

In my view, Sir Tim (81) is first a businessman and then a bookseller. However, his bookshops are extremely good, and have stood the test of time for a very long while. Tim sold Waterstone’s to WH Smith’s eleven years later (they had sacked him previously). Wonderful!

Happily, Sir Tim Waterstone gave me a foreword to my own book on ‘Your Christian Bookshop – A Complete Resource’ (Jay Books) in 1992. I was clearly aware of him, but I had no idea that Waterstones would become the extensive business that now covers the whole of our country.

He says in the foreword, ‘I believe that the world of Christian bookselling is ready to go through the same revolution that general bookselling has been going through in the last few years. There is nothing to fear’.

Tim’s book is in two parts. Firstly, there is the overview of his own life – from his childhood in Crowborough (he didn’t get on with his own father at all), as a colonial boarder in Warden House, onto Hawkeshurst Court and then to Tonbridge School. Onwards to St Catharine’s College in Cambridge, and then some time in India to join a Calcutta broking firm, before then embarking on his own Bookshop chain, Waterstone’s.

During this time in India, Tim married but in a few years this marriage broke up. However, Tim says really nothing in the book about this time, and actually later on, the same happens again – and again nothing is said. Between all of this, Tim had a depressive breakdown, but fortunately this did not occur ever again.

The second part of the book looks at how Tim started Waterstone’s. On returning from India, Tim joined Allied Breweries followed by WH Smith. Whilst in America, working on behalf of WH Smith’s, he was dismissed by the WHS Chairman who apparently said to him, ‘We don’t really mind what you do now, though we wouldn’t want you to go straight out and open a load of bookshops in competition with us. That we would stop!  Tim writes, ‘I was angry, but at the same time I was exhilarated’.

The idea that stood out for me was just how much time he had put into growing his own Bookshop business. It was clearly part of him. Sir Tim had been looking at this idea for a long time before starting the business in 1982.

Initially, Waterstone’s was actually a ‘rollercoaster ride’ and Tim put in a lot of his own money in those early days. He was able to obtain bank lending at a time when retail was doing very well (there was no Amazon, for example), and Tim knew exactly what he wanted from his own Book chain.

His mantra was ‘perfect stock, perfect staff, perfect control’.

I guess he sold it at time when a number of factors were coming into retail, which ultimately affected how, good or bad, these businesses would become. Following that first sale to WH Smith, Waterstones went through a 10 year period – under HMV Media – when it really struggled. Tim was part of this till 2001, and eventually he had to stand down, upset by all that was happening around him.

Ultimately, in 2011, Tim became the Chairman of the new company with James Daunt as CEO, and owned by the Russian billionaire, Alexander Mamut. Interestingly, Tim still speaks very lovingly about Waterstones as a business, and his comments – now – about the Elliott Advisors involvement in the business are very illuminating (p273).

I wish Waterstones well. They have an excellent brand, and many book lovers would generally buy from them, as opposed to Amazon. Most UK towns and cities have a Waterstones present, and I trust that this will be the case for a long while yet.

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The Face Pressed Against a Window – The Bookseller Who Built Waterstones

Sir Tim Waterstone

323pp, 2019, Atlantic Books

ISBN: 978-1-78649-634-4

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