Russian billionaire leads a London bookshop revolution
Waterstones owner turns a page in its history and opens a UK store devoted to his native language
It is a literary innovation that will delight London's influx of Russians – and intrigue the intelligence services. Waterstones will open a Russian-language "bookshop" within its flagship Piccadilly store next month.
Russian-speaking assistants will be recruited for the shop, which is the personal passion of Alexander Mamut, the Russian billionaire whose A&NN Group bought the high-street bookseller last year in a £53m deal.
Mr Mamut, who says he enjoys reading high-quality literature in Russian and English, has named the new store "Slova", Russian for "words". It will be housed on the ground floor mezzanine level of the Piccadilly branch and contain almost 5,000 titles.
Slova is expected to become a meeting point for the more literary-minded Russians in the capital. As well as stocking the classics of Russian literature – Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov – it will showcase commercial writers such as Boris Akunin and Polina Dashkova, Russia's most successful crime author, who has sold 40 million books. The move is the next stage in Mr Mamut's plan to revitalise Waterstones under James Daunt, its new managing director, by serving local communities. Mr Daunt told The Bookseller magazine: "For Russophiles and the large, vibrant Russian community in London, we aim to make Slova an irresistible literary and cultural destination. One won't be surprised at the source of the idea, given Waterstones' ownership."
Mr Mamut, an oligarch with close links to the Kremlin, holds a stake in the Russian publisher Azbooka-Atticus, whose titles Waterstones will stock in Slova. Slova will also work with Academia Rossica, the Russian culture and arts foundation based in London, arranging author events, book launches and other activities.
Despite the challenge from Amazon and digital reading devices such as the Kindle, Mr Mamut sees the UK publishing industry, which generated £4bn last year, as a long-term investment. He described Waterstones as "the last significant player in the UK" and claimed the bookseller's continued existence was "important for UK society".
However, as a convenient West End venue for Russian diplomats, business figures and students to congregate, Slova could become a useful listening post for MI5. A casual encounter between browsers of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita might well be a cover for exchanges of non-fictional information.
Waterstones promises that Slova will stock the best titles Russia can offer, with books selected for export by Boris Kupriyanov, the owner of Moscow's Falanster and Tciolkovskiy bookshops.
The announcement by Waterstones prompted speculation that Vladimir Putin may choose the shop as the venue for a cultural summit with David Cameron when he next makes an official visit to London should he win the Russian presidential election in March.
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