On Friday, I went to a talk at the British Library by Tim Waterstone, the founder of Waterstones. He’s written a memoir called The Face Pressed Against the Window: A Memoir, in which he speaks about his childhood experiences, the time he spent in bookshops and the subsequent working life that drove him to chase his dream of opening a chain of leading bookstores.
I wanted to hear him speak because I worked at Waterstones when I was 16 and, I must confess, back then I didn’t think too much about who owned the company or how it began. (Give me any bookshop and I’d have been happy to work there.) Even since then, while I can wax lyrical on my love of Waterstones, I’ve never really considered its origins so I really enjoyed hearing a bit more about it. My bookselling experiences at such a young age inspired me to begin a career in publishing, so I like keeping up with what’s happening at Waterstones.
Early on in his career, Tim worked for W H Smith for eight years before being made redundant. At that time, the one thing they asked of him was that he shouldn’t go and open a chain of rival bookstores. So he did exactly that. He has very happy memories of being allowed to spend hours in his local village bookshop, before going on to run errands for them when he was a little older, which taught him a great deal about the running of a good bookshop. When he was speaking, what really shone through was his appreciation of a well-run, well-stocked bookshop with knowledgeable booksellers: a concept he went on to implement in his shops. He described the early years of Waterstones and it sounded like all involved had a real excitement for and love of the craft of bookselling.
In the Q & A section, Tim was asked for his thoughts on Amazon, something I’m sure he must have been asked about a number of times, but I was really interested to hear his humble response. He praised the fact that they had done a lot of great things for opening up the marketplace and noted that Amazon and Waterstones’ market share are pretty much the same in the UK now, which I thought was intriguing. It may be my cynicism but his answer was not the one I’d expected. He was also full of praise for publishers who have wised up to the implications of ebooks and are focusing their efforts on creating beautiful physical books now.
He also expressed very well the enjoyment that can be found from a great bookshop. He mentioned his love of Waterstones Piccadilly, which is a love I definitely share. Let alone my favourite bookshop, it’s one of my favourite places in London.
I’ve not read his memoir yet but I’m sure it will be of interest to anyone else who might like to learn more about the origins of the UK’s leading bookshop chain.