Monday, January 10, 2005

Right. That does it

No more shopping at Waterstone’s for me. Not online, not in person, not ever. I really am torn by this decision because as a former employee, a book–lover, and a longtime browser of the great stores like that at Piccadilly in London, I’ve grown greatly attached to the place. But when a company slowly becomes a soulless travesty of what it once was, and then acts truly brutally towards its staff, it’s time to start denying it your money.

Waterstone’s has sacked a very long–serving member of its staff for writing — satirically, ocasionally, disguisedly, and on a specifically satirical blog — about his work there.

I pointed out that I had over my eleven years promoted Waterstone’s in many ways, sometimes on my own time. I have organised and hosted more author events with more writers for the enjoyment of more book-buyers than I can recall. I have written for the guide books which Waterstone’s had printed on various genres. I have appeared in print media and broadcast, talking on the BBC in my own time about literature, introduced as an expert bookseller from Waterstone’s in Edinburgh. That’s publicity you can’t buy. I had contributed to the Edinburgh International Book Festival when Waterstone’s still sponsored them. I told them that there were numerous authors who would tell them that I had been an excellent ambassador for the company. I even defended them when the company was attacked in the Scottish press for not supporting independent Scots publishers (oh the irony). None of this seemed to matter to Waterstone’s yesterday.

What appears to have happened (so far) is that someone unknown saw his blog, complained, and his line manager — or the store manager — decided to sack him. At the disciplinary hearing he was told he’d brought the company into disrepute and… well, he talks about everything on the link above.

Not surprisingly, other bloggers and book–lovers aren’t at all happy about this. But none of this will make a difference unless the many notable writers who know this unfortunate guy start to help by speaking out. Waterstone’s used to be a chain which wasn’t really a chain: the sort of place bibliophiles were actually glad to see colonising our towns and cities.

Since HMV bought the business, (interestingly, Waterstone’s’ founder, Tim Waterstone, wants to buy it back after accusing it of going down–market) it has become a place where, if you work there, it’s apparent that money and bureaucracy have a joint rule above all. That’s quite a thing to say about the way a bookshop is run.

And it is the way in which it is run that I am attacking. Individually, the staff conform to the workaday type of the bookseller: there are those who work for the money, but more who also work for the books, and their love of books. My manager, for example, had worked his ass off to open Waterstone’s Piccadilly when he could have sat on it in another part of London. My colleagues, who hailed mostly from the UK and were sprinkled with some international arrivals, were young, educated, and (mostly) either really liked books or loved them.

By cutting the budget of each branch that does not perform as well as it is told to each Christmas, Waterstone’s sets in motion a process which causes any such branch to perform less well on each succeeding Christmas, and the stock at other times of year starts to suffer. Of course, many stores of many kinds do this. (Not many managers, however, would sack a longtime bookseller who could write well, and who wrote satirically once in a while, and who was personally known, which is why I reckon this was a Regional Manager or Head Office slaying.) But it is the difference between what was, and what has now come to pass, that slowly drags a book chain’s reputation down among those who count.

Update: this story has hit the bigtime, and there’s a useful page of links here.

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