Last June, Tim Waterstone was awarded a knighthood for ‘services to bookselling’. But what is bookselling nowadays? The walk-in system, which has endured since William Caxton sold his wares in his Westminster shop, is now being crushed between the Scylla of Amazon and the Charybdis of AbeBooks.
‘What are you going to do about the browser problem?’ Waterstone was asked by a banker from whom he was once trying to raise funds. Stupid question. Encouraging it wholeheartedly was Waterstone’s principal article of faith. Young Tim’s first engagement with books, as a schoolboy in Crowborough, East Sussex, was at a village bookshop run by a Miss Santoro, who took a shine to him. He would go in and read whatever caught his fancy, and she even gave him somewhere to sit. He never bought a book.
Old-style book-buying typically meant going into a shop not knowing what you wanted and sampling the wares to find out. Often enough, like young Tim, one would leave having bought nothing but nevertheless feeling vaguely stimulated by having handled books.
The abolition of the Net Book Agreement