The book trade has become a trade-off

As Waterstone's faces another crisis, will its new owners learn to trust their product?

People seem slightly bemused when you state your profession as bookseller: they're very glad you're doing it, but wonder why. Sometimes, when the rain's lashing down and your only customer is looking up ISBNs on their iPhone, you can wonder yourself.

Sometimes, however, it makes perfect sense: you advise readers, find the perfect gift working only with the description "he's a man, aged 40", discuss books with authors, publishers, agents, and avid readers, and sell lots of hand-picked stock.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? It's not. But if you've charted the fortunes (or lack of them) at the floundering Waterstone's chain of late, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was rocket science.

As an anonymous employee wrote on the Bookseller blog last week, recent years have seen everything from "redundancies and cuts to hours when the Hub [their initially disastrous centralised distribution system] was implemented, to store closures and lack of any recent pay increases".

And now, almost three decades since it was founded, Waterstone's is facing a new crisis. HMV, its parent company, needs to sell up after announcing severe losses that suggest before-tax profits will be down more than 50 per cent on the preceding year's £74.2m. Speculation rages as to whether its founder, Tim Waterstone, and the Russian oligarch Alexander Mamut will buy it, or if the current MD, Dominic Myers, and team will make a bid. Whoever succeeds, they need to get it right.

Waterstone's own problems stem from its focus on trying to grab short-term market share via loss leaders, "3 for 2" deals, and centralised less-varied book-buying, often investing too heavily in publisher-pushed titles that just haven't sold. Meanwhile, they've sacrificed knowledgeable staff and store individuality.

The book trade is in a difficult transitional phase, but Waterstone's unsuccessful scrabble for a more modern approach -- they were slow to pick up on the digital-reader market and the potential of internet sales -- leaves them falling between two stools: trying to compete with Amazon and supermarkets, while seeming to have lost faith in their core product. And if they don't believe in the value of books, why should their customer?

It's increasingly common for people to comment on price, as if they'd like an explanation as to why a 200-page paper unit costs £8.99. This is a troublesome trend, and one that Waterstone's has heartily contributed to.

Giving customers a real service and believing in the inherent value of books still works, however. The swiftly expanding Daunt Books is a case in point. They provide well-read (well-heeled) customers with beautiful shops, carefully selected stock and literary staff. Carrying a Daunts bag is akin to wearing a badge of intellectualism among London's middle-classes.

Waterstone's can't compete directly with this model, but there is still middle ground in the market, and the more they give control back to good staff onsite the better. Perhaps the resolution of the current crisis ­- and it's crucial for UK publishing that it is resolved -- will give them the chance to reinvest in the idea of the book. Rather than their awful tagline, 'feel every word', why not, 'believe in the book'?

Recently a customer buying two titles from us remarked how he often left Waterstone's with nothing: he hated to miss the 3 for 2 deal, but got too annoyed looking for a third book he didn't want.

Not necessarily a universal experience, but perhaps something the eventual new owners should consider. The customer was spending more money with us, but getting what he wanted, and crucially, he valued the books he was buying. It's not the complete answer to a complex problem, but it's a solid book-shaped building block.

 

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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle