Freelance writer and poet from London; if you would like to read my poetry, please check out my book, 'Poems on the Page', available from goo.gl/Ta4oAX.
Published November 17th 2016
When I saw Waterstones's Wimbledon branch closing down last year my heart sank. A town without a bookshop? That's the beginning of the death of the high street.
Months passed, I I continued to walk down The Broadway, and the same old, same old carried on: shops closed, buildings went under construction, and either boring businesses took them over or another restaurant in an already saturated market would appear. But then I saw a sign on one of the buildings under development and it said 'Waterstones opening here soon.'
Waterstones, Wimbledon, The Broadway
It looked like Waterstones had closed at one end of the high street so they could open up at the other end. I suspect that it was so the Metro Bank could buy the old premises, but whatever the reason for the short move, I was very pleased to see it would be returning because I had missed my browsing sessions.
I wondered how long 'soon' meant because this indefinite period of time can be very deceptive word. It turned out 'soon' was very accurate, because less than a couple of months later, there Waterstones proudly stood once again, right in time for Christmas.
The front window drew me in like a moth to a flame: colourful, sparkly, and very seasonal. Variety is also key because Waterstones is changing. The bookshop is no longer just a bookshop, it is so much more - and it needs to be, too.
Unlike some companies (Woolworths, Blockbusters, BHS), which failed to keep afloat due to their inability to adapt to the modern shopping world, Waterstones has seized the opportunity to attract new customers, while holding onto their dear long timers.
As the last remaining chain of specialist bookshops on the high street, you might think they had little competition to worry about. But competition comes in many forms. What with e-readers, tablets, iTunes, etc, there are more ways to read than ever before, and when everything is digital who needs a physical store? There is also competition from television, video games, cinema, apps, and all sorts of other screen-based activities that have taken up most people's leisure time over reading.
So what changes has Waterstones undergone to restore its inner youth? As I stepped through the doors, I took in my new surroundings from a comparative point of view. How is it different to the previous Wimbledon branch?
The last store further up the road had been set up across two levels, and without any lift, it was cutting off a proportion of their customer base. Those in wheelchairs or with poor mobility were unable to access these areas. It also restricted parents with young children, not only due to prams, but also because they couldn't leave their child unattended in the children's section while they went upstairs.The layout also felt a bit cramped before, as tables placed between shelves and till made navigating a bit of a maze.
The new shop is all on one spacious level. Display tables are all over the place, but the larger floor space means that there are no tight squeezes and no having to swerve around other customers. Instead of one till with one cashier, there is a long row of tills with a proper queuing system that does not get in the way of customers who are still shopping. The queuing area is full of interesting things to look at while you wait in line.
The previous Waterstones always felt a bit dark, especially the further to the back of the store you went. The windows were small, and not much daylight got through because they were stacked with displays.
The new store feels light and airy; it has big windows looking out on street and the displays do not block the light coming in. White walls, light oak shelves, wooden flooring, and spotlights from the ceiling, all give a greater sense of brightness, energy, and comfort.
Aside from the aesthetics of the shop, what about the content? Well, given the time of year, Waterstones is full of exciting Christmas gifts for all ages. By the front door you can browse through a range of quirky calendars that cover everything from Banksy art to dogs performing yoga.
Any book would make a lovely gift for an avid reader, but some books feel just a bit more special than others, and that usually comes down to the cover. Books I already own, books I dislike, plots that don't interest me - you would think these are something I would stay well away from. But so often I am tempted to buy books that fall into these categories simply because I have fallen in love with the cover. I am a sucker cloth and leather bound books, especially if they come as part of a collection. They conjure an image in my head of one of those grand bookcases in stately homes, and makes me want to replicate that beauty on the mismatched muddle of a bookcase I have in my not-so-stately abode.
Having a good book given such lavish treatment makes it feel like it it is getting the respect it deserves. The classics (even if you are not a fan of them) should be recognised for their greatness, and a posh binding goes a long way to achieving that. It also makes it feel more 'of the time' it was written.
That's not to dis a paperback, however. While hardbacks feel special, paperbacks play a vital role in accessibility. It is whole lot easier to read a paperback, even if the contents is the same. Paperbacks you can read anywhere, anytime, and you don't have to feel bad about creasing the pages. Can you imagine trying to read a hardback on the way to work and carrying it in your handbag? Handbags are inexplicably heavy enough to begin with. Can you imagine trying to read a hardback in the bath? Your arms begin to ache more and more until plop, they sink down and your book has got a soggy bottom. What's more, can you imagine trying to encourage a reluctant reader to pick up a hardback? Paperbacks are far less intimidating, especially for beginners.
If you want to encourage reluctant teenagers to read, then there are lots of books you could try buying them. Instead of fiction, go for a satirical non-fiction book, such as Damn You, Autocorrect! A hilarious read that is both current and relevant to the kind of culture their lives spiral around.
Waterstones are particularly good at drawing your eye to not-so-new discoveries. For example, Roald Dhal is one of the most famous children's writers of all time. Everyone knows about Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, etc, but how many are aware of Cruelty, Madness, Lust, and Deception? I certainly wasn't. These books are part of a four-volume collection of short stories for adults that I never knew existed.
While you get lost in the darker side of Dahl, the kids can get lost in the lighter side we all know and love. Waterstones even provide a copy of The Twits, complete with furry beard — great for tactile children.
The most interactive books are the picture books, which are out on tables, just waiting to be picked up and enjoyed, These include a mix of new books along with those I enjoyed from my own childhood. You can't beat Each, Peach, Pear, Plum or Peepo, which turn reading into a game of I Spy.
Many children's favourite characters make special seasonal appearances too, such as Spot's First Christmas and Winnie and Wilbur Meet Santa.
While it is the grown-up who buy the books, I think it is important that kids get a say in which books they get, as that then makes them more enthusiastic when it comes to reading them. Waterstones has created a fun area to help kids get more excited about books. This area includes a basket of toys based on classic fictional characters (The Tiger Who Came to Tea, The Snowman, and a tee-pee they can hideaway in, like that of the Indians from Peter Pan.
Unlike a lot of chain stores, where you know you're going to get the exact same thing whichever branch you visit, each Waterstones store is unique, tailored to reflect the interests of the local market. While I was browsing the shelves, for example, I discovered a fiction book called The Wimbledon Poisoner.
As I said at the beginning, Waterstones is no longer just a book shop; the books are complemented by a range of accessories, toys, games, and gadgets. They had one table completely dedicated to Harry Potter, which alongside the novels, include colouring books, trivial pursuit, a scrap album, notebooks, and a quiddich ball set. Another table was full of e-reader accessories and novelty gifts, such as a camera lens mug, and then there was a shelf with lots of educational toys, and arts & crafts materials.
In an age when we are all in a rush, it is such a joy to be able to walk into a shop, forget time exists, and then walk out again to realise that forty-five minutes has completely dissolved out of existence.