Paperback fighters

Forget the cluttered mustiness of the traditional bookshop. The gloves are off, and now the big booksellers are doing battle.
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The Independent Culture
It takes a lot to persuade John Le Carre, Jilly Cooper, J G Ballard, Terry Pratchett, Ronald Dawkins, Joanna Trollope and Jung Chang, the Chinese memoirist of Wild Swans fame, to turn out mob-handed for the opening of a shop. So what's bringing this squad of A-team bestsellers to Piccadilly on September 14?

Books is the answer. When Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate, declares the new Waterstones officially open at 12.30 pm, the writers will be the first to inspect the biggest bookshop in Europe - and the latest development in a spectacular bookselling war that seems to fly in the face of all retailing logic.

The superstore occupies the old Simpson's building, home of the clothing store that opened its doors in 1936 and closed last Christmas. The new incarnation - refitted for pounds 5m, carrying pounds 7m in stock and paying pounds 1.7m rent a year - will be a department store of books, with distinct identities and "themes" in each of its eight storeys. One floor will be devoted solely to fiction. The children's department alone will be bigger than Waterstones' entire Hampstead branch. We're talking gigantic - six miles of shelves, 250,000 titles, just over a million books under one roof. "What this shop really resembles," sighs general manager Lisa Milton, "is a beautiful ship - a cruise liner, with amazing architectural lines from the 1930s."

Refreshments will be available from classy "destinational" sites: a sleek restaurant called The Red Room, a juice bar, a News Cafe where you read the TLS and demolish a Danish pastry, and a "studio lounge" chat zone overlooking Buckingham Palace. What with the "Internet access facility", the "event spaces" for celebrity readings, the "interactive author-related events" - from a cookery class to a business lecture - the 200 staff and the opening hours (8am to 11pm all week) it's a long way from the clutter and we-can-order-it-for-you chaos of the traditional British bookshop.

But only ten days after the Piccadilly launch, another uber-bookshop will throw open its doors - in Charing Cross Road this time, the musty focus of the metropolitan second-hand book trade. It's the new Borders, the fifth store in the American book chain to open in the UK in a year (that's not counting the 26 Books Etc stores they also own).

The Borders retail style was established when they opened their flagship store in London's Oxford Circus in August last year. It was a 39,000-square- foot, four-storey fun-house - airy, warehousey, the ground floor filled with discounted stock, loss leaders and bargains, the first floor boasting a notably comprehensive transatlantic fiction department. Borders is the second biggest bookselling chain in America, after Barnes & Noble, flogging an unusual but popular mix of books, CDs, videos, magazines, international newspapers, and stationery from Paperchase, the British firm of which Borders owns 20 per cent.

But look - here comes Waterstones again. Next year, it will open another massive shop in Oxford Street, barely a block away from Borders. The battling super-shops, selling broadly the same stock, will resort to ever more subtle geisha tactics to woo the book-buying public and persuade them to stick around. (But after you've had coffee, juice, a tapas snack, a browse through the papers, lunch in the restaurant and a snooze on the comfy sofa, it's hard to see what more "levels of service" you could require. A shiatsu massage?)

This is war, no doubt about it. The new Waterstones was proudly announced back in October as "the biggest bookshop in Britain". The next day, it has become "the biggest bookshop in Britain and possibly the world" at 54,000 square feet. This was contested by the colossal (67,000 square feet) Barnes & Noble superstore in New York's Union Square. Now, blow me if Waterstones haven't "discovered" that their "public customer area" is, in actual fact, 66,000 square feet. Size matters to these big boys.

British bookselling has been busily eating itself through the last decade. WH Smith, the huge books-and-newspapers chain, bought Waterstones from its founder, Tim Waterstone, in 1989. Smith's also bought John Menzies, their most obvious competition, and sold off Waterstones last year to HMV Media, which also owns Hatchards, Dillons and the upmarket Irish bookshop of Hodges Figgis. Then Borders entered the market with a bullet last summer, and the action began to speed up.

The new shops, publishers agree, represent the future of book retailing. But is it what readers want? Our notions of the classic bookshop are surely more small-scale, summed up by Hugh Grant's place of work in the movie Notting Hill: a cramped, musty, neighbourhood shop where the owner knows every book on his shelves and can advise passing-trade actresses about the best titles. In You've Got Mail, Meg Ryan runs a similar, hopelessly small-scale shop threatened (boo! hiss!) by Tom Hanks's Borders-like megastore.

"There are two styles of bookselling at work here," said Roger Tagholm, a writer on Publishing News. "Basically, Waterstone's is dark and Borders is bright. Waterstone shops are all dark furnishings, they're serious, more like a library than the opposition. Even the staff are trendier and more likely to be wearing black. Borders are bright and breezy, with lighter colours; they're for people who go to a bookshop to get a CD, a video and a glass of beer."

The real USP of Waterstones is their policy of decentralised buying. It means that, unlike the central buying department at Borders, individual buyers for the 200-odd Waterstones outlets can use their discretion about stock, based on what local readers' taste may dictate - the branch in Gower Street, beside London University, for instance, has the largest medical book department in the UK. "Having two thousand buyers gives us a scale advantage that no other book chain can match," said David Kneale, the new MD. "I want to encourage our people to experiment and take risks."

The biggest risk of all, you might say, is to open a vast new store at a time when the book-buying market seems stagnant as a millpond, and when Waterstones' year-on-year profits are down one per cent. "Undoubtedly the market is flat," said Kneale. "But when you've got a strong brand, this is precisely the time you should invest - when the others can't."

Nicholas Clee, editor of The Bookseller, has watched the rise of the stores with interest. "An awful lot of trends have come from the other side of the Atlantic," he says, "like selling coffee, juice and the idea of lounging to customers. The superstore is another trend. The first shop here to offer coffee on sofas was Ottakers in Brighton. Then Waterstones took it up, then Books Etc. They're now described as `lifestyle stores'. Kneale talks dreamily about "making book-buying part of people's leisure time" as if browsing were a sensuous pleasure rather than the prelude to a retail choice.

Borders chairman and chief executive Richard Joseph, a Johannesburg-born tough guy with a voice like glass being crushed under a door, went further. "We're a whole lot more than a bookshop," he rasped, "we're a number of shops - books, videos, CDs, magazines - all wrapped up in lively events stuff, the author readings and discussion groups, jazz gigs, poetry readings... We're trying to make our stores into places where people spend part of their leisure time, so they'll ask each other, `Shall we go to the pub, the cinema or to Borders?'"

Waterstones promises to extend their chain with new 25,000-square-foot properties in Manchester, Nottingham and Birmingham. Not to be outdone, Borders promises new books'n'music stores in "York, Bournemouth and, er, there's many more in the pipeline". But who is going to be doing all the book-buying that will justify such energetic investment? Who the hell is going to do all this reading?

Is there a war on? "I don't believe so," growled Richard Joseph. "What we're doing is completely different from what Waterstones are up to. We're providing several different things while they're just a huge bookshop". But don't you want to be even huger? "We want to be the best purveyor of books, CDs, videos, to be the leaders in all these fields."

A war, David Kneale? "You'll always have competition in any retail business," he said smoothly, "and we welcome anything that give customers more choice. But ultimately we aim to beat the opposition."

"These stores appear to be popular and successful," said Nicholas Clee at the The Bookseller, "but the competition is getting rough. Having the new Waterstones open beside Borders in Oxford Street next year means that neither store is likely to be profitable - and I think the management of both companies would probably admit that," said Clee. "But Waterstones just can't be seen to be defeated by Borders. For each of them, the goal is simply to be the biggest bookseller in the United Kingdom. And they'd both do anything to get there".

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