Interview: Once upon a time there was a very angry bookseller...

Deborah Ross talks to Tim Waterstone
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When WH Smith sacked Tim Waterstone, they unleashed a whirlwind they are still reaping. He went on the dole, built a chain of brilliant bookshops and sold them - to WH Smith. He is a rare man, and a rich one. Last week he embarked on his next big adventure. Don't bet he won't pull it off.

Tim Waterstone is balding and long-nosed and quite a bit jug-eared and wears a shirt with frayed cuffs. He is very un-Richard Branson or Terence Conran or any other successful businessman you can think of. Mostly, he looks like that pink-domed geography teacher you had at school, the one who was always pelted with paper pellets and whom no one fancied apart from Miss Tandy, the spin- sterly chemistry teacher with the moustache and thick legs with whom he danced annually at the sixth-form disco.

So, in short, not a charismatic sex-bomb, as far as initial appearances go. But then he gets cross. And when he gets cross he gets very passionate. And masterful. And magnificent. And sexy, even. Then, you can see why he's been so successful and so frequently married. Tim, I tell him, you are really quite beautiful when you're angry. Thanks, he stutters blushingly, before adding that he's actually not cross most of the time. He just happens to be extremely cross at the moment.

He is cross with WH Smith. Smiths hasn't been doing at all well as of late, and may be on the brink of disaster. But when, last week, Tim made a surprise takeover bid, his offer was dismissed out of hand, rather scoffingly.

"How dare they?" he cries. "How dare they do it? Not to me, but to their shareholders. It really wasn't sensible of them to be so grand. But I won't give up. I won't let this die. If you start something you must finish it. You can't back off. And I am absolutely determined. Absolutely determined. I always believe I am going to win, because I will it. Yes, I do have a lot of self-belief but that's what retailing is about, self-belief.

"Smiths used to have this branch in Hampstead where the manager was told to cut costs by turning the light off when there weren't any customers in the shop. He spent all day running to and from the light switch. A customer would come in and it would be pitch black until the manager ran over to put on the light. Now, does that convey self-belief? No, but it's typical Smiths in their current state. Typical!" I think if Mr Waterstone had been my geography teacher I'd know a lot more about Paraguay.

But why does Tim want Smiths so badly? Because, he replies, "they've blown what was once a fabulous family business, and I just can't bear it. They went thought this awful dumbing-down period in the Eighties when they went into music and videos and abandoned their core retail business and developed a logo that was orange and brown. Orange and brown! I really want to save them." So it's not about fulfilling some revenge fantasy then? "Oh no," he insists. "I'm over all that." But, still, I wonder.

Tim actually worked for WH Smith until 1981, when he was booted out after setting up a US book distribution business that never really got off the ground. Was he annoyed at Smiths then? "Annoyed? I was apoplectic with fury. Apoplectic!" He ended up on the dole. Or could have ended up on the dole, had he stuck it out in the queue at the labour exchange in Wandsworth. "I'll never forget standing in that God-awful place to collect 30 quid. I didn't get as far as the counter. I walked out, sat in my car, and the whole horror came to me. My life had been taken apart, and I had a blind, euphoric determination to do something." By then, he was already on to his second wife and had six children.

Certainly, setting up Waterstone's, the bookshop chain that was financed, initially, by some hefty bank loans, was his way of sticking one back on Smiths. Indeed, when he was sacked, the then chairman, Sir Simon Hornby, told Tim he didn't mind what he did so long as he didn't set up rival bookshops. "So, of course, it occurred to me then that it was precisely what I would do." He then took great pleasure in opening branches of Waterstone's as close to branches of Smiths as possible. "When we set up in Bath, we closed the Bath branch of Smiths in three weeks," he recalls happily.

Waterstone's grew and grew until 1988 when Tim sold it. To Smiths. For pounds 42m, of which around pounds 10m went to him personally. He thinks they paid rather too much for it, "so it was a very good joke. Although I didn't go yar, yar, yar, yar, yar." Now, Tim gobbling up WH Smith, would be what? An even bigger and better joke? No, he insists. "I just know I can pull Smiths back within six months. I just know I can Waterstone it."

He uses his own name as a verb, and why not? You know what he means by it. He'll decide what Smiths is about, then go for it. In fact, he's already decided what Smiths will be about. No more music. No more videos. It'll concentrate on just three things: beautiful stationery; middle-market books; newspapers and magazines. This last will be expanded enormously. "You will have all the foreign language newspapers, minority periodicals, every computer magazine you can lay your hands on." He wants, he says, to make Smiths the "authoritative" high street news retailer in much the same way he made Waterstone's the authoritative high street bookshop.

It would, I think, be difficult to overstate Tim Waterstone's impact on the book trade. He may, even, have done more than anyone to transform literary Britain than anyone else. Before Waterstone's, what was there? Well, there was always your local bookshop, but that was a jumble that never seemed to have what you wanted. If you were very brave, you could venture into London, to Foyles, but with its chits, confused staff and layout it had all the appeal of a sub-post-office in Karachi.

What Tim did was create big shops you could walk around, that had good layouts, more than 50,000 titles always in stock, excellent specialist sections, long opening hours and staff who were graduates who may have read a book or two. He took bookselling from something people used to do as a favour or a hobby and turned it into something much sexier, and much more rock 'n' roll.

After selling Waterstone's, Tim remained as a consultant for five years, then moved away to write three novels and open Daisy & Tom, a sort of children's department store on the King's Road in London which will soon, he says, be established nationwide. He got the idea for Daisy & Tom from noting how his third wife, Rosie, seemed to spend most weekends schlepping their two young daughters, Daisy and Lucy, from shoe shop to clothes shop to toy shop. So, he thought, why not one shop that sells clothes and shoes and toys? Yes, other men might have just given Rosie a hand. But other men aren't entrepreneurial visionaries like Tim.

Anyway, I meet Tim at Daisy & Tom on a Saturday afternoon, when business is brisk, to say the least. The place is jam-packed with the sorts of families who dress their little girls in top-quality tartan skirts and make their boys wear sailor suits to weddings. It is very Chelsea. Yes, there's Barbie and Action Man but there's also a pounds 2,600 play cottage with a real thatched roof. Crikey, I say, you could buy a house in Manchester for that. True, says Tim, "but we've just sold two". He is not into money per se himself, he says. "Look at my cuffs," he cries.

We go to the soda fountain, where Tim orders tea but is given a cappuccino. "Awfully sorry," he says to the waiter, "but I ordered tea. Could you change it? I'll pay for the cappuccino, of course." I tell Tim to buck up. You own the place, man. Fire the boy. Tim cringes and says he couldn't. He once had to sack an assistant manager at a Waterstone's, who then went on to have a full-blown nervous breakdown. The guilt still makes him feel sick, he says. I think he can give as good as he gets but isn't necessarily a bully. He may be an essentially good man sitting atop some dark and occasionally explosive forces. Tim, do you ever fear breaking down yourself? "Of course, one fears it round every corner." I think he may be more complicated than Richard Branson or Terence Conran, actually. Certainly, he is much more open.

He was born and brought up in Crowborough, Sussex. His father, Malcolm, was a Second World War drummer who became a tea-broker. He loved his father "hugely", he says, then adds "although I never had a good relationship with him". Why not? He isn't sure. They just never hit it off. One of his first memories is of his father returning home on leave during the war: "I was two and furious at this man in uniform for breaking up my idyllic relationship with my mother." Apparently, Tim said to him, "What have you come here for? We're perfectly happy without you." He thinks his father might never have forgiven him.

"He adored my older sister (Wendy, now a retired doctor) and poured most of his parental affection onto her. Plus, he was very fond of my older brother (David, a company chairman). But I could never make any kind of alliance with him. I remember when I was seven, I went up to kiss him, as he sat reading his paper. I had just kissed mother goodnight and I suddenly thought I would kiss father, too. But he pushed me away and said, "Men don't kiss." It was a terrible blow. I remember feeling totally devastated. We never touched again."

Tim himself has eight children from his three marriages. As a father, he has always been very tactile and loving, he says. The worst thing about the failure of the first two marriages was having to leave his children. "There has never yet been a child who has come out of a divorce without a scar on his heart."

He then says there's this chapter in his first novel, Lilley and Chase, that is all about a father having to tell his daughter he is leaving. He says the chapter is so autobiographical he can't read it without crying. I go off and find that chapter. Certainly, it is moving stuff. "Annabel [the daughter] was staring at him, all chatter gone, her face taut with anxiety... he could see that she, too, was crying, but there was no sound from her as the tears ran down her face ... he saw in her a depth of pain that he knew she was too young to bear..."

If he felt it as badly as this, why didn't he stay? I mean, a lot of couples do stay married just for the children's sake, don't they? Yes, he agrees, they do. But he couldn't do it. "Once a relationship starts to come apart I cannot stick with it. I just do not have the patience."

His mother, Sylvia, was much more affectionate than his father, and much cleverer. "She would have her tea in bed and whiz through The Times crossword, whereas father was practically innumerate and had left school at 14." She adored Tim who, as the youngest, became her little pet. She would take him to musicals.

Tim adored her, too, although can now see she was a fearful snob. "I remember once playing with this little girl on the village green, and asking her back for tea. After she had gone my mother said, "Please don't bring her back again, dear. She is rather common."

Neither Malcolm nor Sylvia were bookish. "And when I say they weren't bookish, I mean not bookish. I can't remember either of them reading a book ever. And there were no books in the house." The first book he remembers reading was an edition of Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop, which he thinks either Wendy or David brought home from school. Tim is still a great reader. And his favourite novel of all time? Middlemarch, he thinks.

His brother and sister were, he says, much more academic than he was and, as a result, he had quite a nice childhood because "I never had to live up to any high expectations". He was treated, he says, as the dunderhead of the family. His parents, he continues, were very surprised when he made it into Cambridge. Both his mother and father died before he established Waterstone's. Yes, he says, he'd have loved them to have seen it. What does he think their reaction would have been? "My mother would have probably said, `Oh Tim. Not a shopkeeper.' "

Did it rankle, always being treated as the thick one? Yes, he says, it probably did. He then later confesses that the problem with his first two marriages was that he married women who were intellectually inferior to him. Although he hated himself for it, he would always end up feeling contemptuous. But why was he attracted to such women? To prove he was clever? Perhaps, he concedes, although he's never thought of it that way before.

He married first straight after Cambridge, then left wife number one for wife number two when he was 30. The second marriage lasted 18 years before he fell for Rosie, who is younger than his oldest son. As far as I can see, in his 58 years he has never lived on his own. Do you have something against it, Tim? "No," he says. "It just seemed to have happened that way." He then says the trouble with him is that he can't just have affairs. If he falls in love with a woman, he just has to up and marry her.

Does he fall in love easily? No, not especially, he says, although with Rosie, it was an extraordinary business. "She came straight from Oxford to Waterstone's to help us put together a Waterstone's Guide to Books. The first time I saw her it was a coup de foudre. I knew I had to have her, and within a year we were living together. This marriage is very different from my others because Rosie is very much my intellectual equal. In fact, I think she's possibly cleverer. This makes for a much more interesting relationship." Later, when I ask him if anything frightens him, he says, "Yes, losing Rosie."

Rosie, who works in television documentaries, joins us later at the soda fountain, with Lucy, nearly five, and Daisy, three. The two girls get on his knee. He sniffs their hair because, he says, he really likes the smell of them. "It is absolutely exquisite being an older father," he then says. "You realise how short, how precious their childhoods are going to be, so you just pour your love into them. I could be happy just writing books and playing with my children." And taking over Smiths? "Yes. Yes. I will do it, you know."