When is an independent bookshop not an independent bookshop? When it’s a Waterstones in disguise.
The stores all have their own unique names and branding, with just a small notice in the window pointing out that they are a trading name of Waterstones Ltd. Many local business owners are up in arms, claiming that the chain is deliberately trying to deceive customers looking to do business with an independent store.
Unsurprisingly, the owner of the local bookshop is not happy about it. Also unsurprisingly, Waterstones have rubbished claims there is anything underhand going on.
I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, I don’t think a national chain pretending to be an independent store is a good thing, if that is indeed what Waterstones was attempting. People have their preferences over where to shop, and regardless of whether those preferences are driven by logic or prejudice (I mean only the kind of soft prejudices like a dislike of corporations, obviously) they deserve to know into whose bank account the money they are spending is going to end up.
Villages and towns with a strong sense of community often like to support their local shops, so for someone to think that their money was going to a small business owner, or staying within the local economy, when in fact it would end up in corporate coffers or lining the wallets of shareholders isn’t fair.
But at the same time, I don’t know whether this is really an act of treachery on par with something you would expect from a character Sean Bean plays in a film. While I do understand the ‘big brand versus small business’ argument, I can’t help but appreciate the fact that many global corporations operating today started out a century or so ago as homegrown local businesses.
Look at McDonald’s for instance, the second largest employer in the world (according to data from 2012). The ubiquitous restaurant chain started life around 1940, founded by two brothers. Although it is putting it incredibly prosaically, the reason McDonald’s dominates in the way it does today is because it started out as a small business that did what it did incredibly well. Becoming a global brand, admittedly while not happening by accident, is a side-effect of business acumen, great products or services, and an ability to cater to local demand.
There are obviously lots of ways in which the ‘corporations are evil’ axiom can ring true. But to say that a shop should be avoided or demonised because it has a name and branding that you already recognise seems to me to be an oversimplification.
And of course local businesses are going to complain: Waterstones is a threat to them. It is worth remembering that the same narrative that paints all chains as heartless and profiteering paints all small business owners as people of great integrity struggling to get by.
While it is true that being a small business owner is a great way of realising a passion and pursuing your dreams, there are plenty of people who open small businesses simply because they can see an opportunity to make money.
To return to the issue at hand, is Waterstones doing something that it shouldn’t? I guess it depends on your attitude towards independent bookshops. I love any kind of bookshop; I have to admit that local ones often do have more personality and flexibility to be different.
But it’s unsurprising to think that chains can often offer more: my local Waterstones (I say local, it’s still over half an hour away from where I live) is many times larger than the bookshops in my local town. But at the same time, one of my local bookshops always has windows brimming full of signed copies of the latest books by bigshot authors. It’s a bookshop you should take seriously: these are book-loving professionals running their business well.
So I suppose if you hate chain bookshops then this might seem like a bad precedent. While the idea that people working in a small family-owned bookshop love books, while those working in a chain hate them and just want a job, seems rather childish, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no truth in the point.
But looking like an independent bookshop can also be a double-edged sword. Not everybody loves independent shops. Some of them prefer chain bookshops, believing them to offer more variety and better service – I’m not saying it’s true, just that there are prejudices against small business owners and unique shops as well as there are national chains and global corporations. So Waterstones could find itself losing customers because they don’t realise it’s a chain and thus keep walking down the street instead of going in to browse.
Only if you dislike large chains do you see their branding and corporate identity as some kind of dirty secret they need to be rid of. Companies love their branding: that’s why they spend so much money on it. That’s why their carrier bags, pens, staff uniforms and delivery trucks are decorated in corporate livery. It is the brand that attracts the customer.
So while the one point of view casts Waterstones as some creeping and insidious force, attempting to infiltrate the local high street in disguise, the other depicts a well-known chain sacrificing its valued and advantageous branding for the sake of blending in with the aesthetic of its local trading environment. The move could be a concession on behalf of Waterstones; an acknowledgement that they are the outsider, and a sign that they’re making an effort to blend in.
I think that both these for and against arguments are a little too fairytale. Waterstones’ move was based upon a business decision, and, equally, it’s money that motivates the objections.
Ultimately, I’d say the outlook for those particular high streets is pretty rosy from the point of view of booklovers. More choice in books is never a negative, and if we can all agree on just one thing, it’s that readers are not the type of people to come out of one bookshop and say ‘I’d better not browse in that bookshop as well, I’ve bought enough books today.”
What about you? Are you Team Waterstones or Team Independent? Scroll down and leave a comment to let me know if you think Waterstones has done a bad thing, a good thing, or an irrelevant thing.