Comment: much to be learnt from renaissance of bookstores
All Good Books is located a hundred yards from my house in North London and has become a feature of the local community with its range of books catering for the local audience and its hosting on an array of events that it runs regularly in the evenings.
These features are exactly what differentiate it from Amazon, which looked destined to kill off such independent bookstores around the world. Between 1995 and 2016 the online behemoth was doing a mighty fine job on this front as it had contributed significantly to a fall in the number of independent bookshops from 1,894 to 867, according to the Booksellers Association. It had also placed extreme pressure on the recognised chains including Waterstones, Borders and Barnes & Noble.
Helped in part by the pandemic the book store has had something of a renaissance in recent years as it has become recognised as part of high street communities up and down the country and overseas too. This realisation by a growing number of people that these local stores provide something very different to a website helped push up independent store numbers to a 10-year high in 2022 of 1,072, which itself was a jump of 45 from that recorded the year before.
The unique individual characteristics that the likes of All Good Books possess can be tough to replicate across a chain of stores but it is possible. It is the very thing that has breathed life into Waterstones since James Daunt was brought in to run the operation in 2011 by its then owner Alexander Mamut. He had successfully run the much venerated Daunt Books in London’s Marylebone where he adopted an unusual policy involving the binning of conventional wisdom.
Rather than operate to the traditional retailing principles of imposing a consistent approach at each of the Waterstones outlets, whereby they deliver identical experiences, he wholly rejected this philosophy. Instead Daunt gave each store manager the autonomy to run the units for their local communities. “If you walk into Zara, you want to have the Zara experience,” but doing this for bookstores invariably leads to a “blended average” that fails to deliver for the customers and has made so many bookstores “inherently boring” has been his long-standing view.
“It’s not me who creates good bookshops out there. I simply trust the individuals within each individual store to create good bookshops. All I do is constantly encourage that,” says Daunt.
The success of this approach in the UK led to him also being appointed to run the 600 Barnes & Noble stores across the US. The company is owned by investment firm Elliot Advisors who also purchased Waterstones in 2018. It’s worth stating that Elliott, and their founder Paul Singer, are no fools when it comes to investing. They had clearly been impressed with Daunt’s unique approach and he is clearly deploying exactly the same playbook with the US chain as deployed at Waterstones. “If you’re in Alabama, you should run a very different bookstore to if you’re on the Upper West Side of Manhattan,” he has stated.
Although Daunt suggests this strategy is unique to the book retailing category I’m not so sure this is the case. Giving greater autonomy to store managers and empowering employees would undoubtedly inject differentiation, personality and character into stores regardless of the product or service they are selling.
What is not in dispute though is that for Daunt, as well as those individuals running single outlets like All Good Books, it is clear they have found a way to compete with the powerful online competition. There is much to be learnt from how these businesses, with their tailored approaches to their local communities, have carved out a place on high streets and against all the odds are succeeding in a very tough economic climate.