'Selling books is what I do. I am a specialist'

As saviour-elect at Waterstone's he is greeted with near ecstasy, but can Daunt revive the ailing chain?

Can James Daunt, favoured bookseller of London's chattering classes, singlehandedly rescue the traditional British book trade from the jaws of Tesco, Amazon and digital books?

That is the question on everyone's lips from authors and publishers to independent booksellers since news broke that the Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut had bought Waterstone's from HMV for £53m, and anointed Daunt, who comes from a long line of Irish Protestant clerics, as saviour-elect.

Daunt certainly intends to try, and he believes passionately in the cause. "I am doing it because it matters," he says, dismissing motives of money or power with one of his diffident smiles. "Selling books is what I do. I am not interested in any facet of retailing apart from books. I am a specialist."

Daunt does things differently from the rest of us. The first time I met him we had both been skiing with our families. When I told him we had been to a British-run chalet in a top resort in the French Alps, Daunt looked at me pityingly. His idea of a ski-ing holiday was to fly to Geneva, hire a car and drive into the mountains until he found a pleasant base hotel. From there, he told me, he would drive up to a different resort every day – this with his wife, Katy, and two small children.

I realised then that Daunt is adventurous, enviably energetic and quite wacky. Tall and wiry, he has a manner both calm and quietly dangerous. Although unfailingly charming, there is an air of gentle disdain about him as if he holds a secret to life at which ordinary mortals can only guess. Yet he is surprisingly domesticated and a warm hands-on father, cycling with his two daughters to school, reading them stories and baking bread at weekends. He also enjoys cooking when friends come round – large, unusual fish a speciality.

Physically tough, he can be seen riding his bicycle round London in most weathers, rarely wearing more than a pullover. Motorists who cut him up get short shrift. Formal exercise would be vulgar but he plays tennis and swims in the North Sea near his country home in Suffolk.

He is certainly good at keeping secrets. Several times in the past year we have discussed the future of the book trade on social occasions, but there has never been the merest hint that behind the scenes he was working flat out on a feasibility study to buy Waterstone's with Mamut.

His appointment has been greeted with little short of ecstasy by the book trade, where tales of the inefficiencies of Waterstone's, Britain's largest bookstore chain since the collapse of Borders, are legendary. "It is dead, there is barely a pulse beating," commented one analyst. Sales have been steadily falling although it is still profitable.

"If anyone can save Waterstone's, James can," says Andrew Franklin, who runs Profile Books, a publisher. "He is a brilliant bookseller. He understands books and the customers and he is tough but fair with publishers."

Some, though, have pointed out that running seven Daunt Books stores in posh areas of London such as Hampstead, Notting Hill and Chelsea is a bit different to running 290 Waterstone's shops spread around the country. While that may be true, Daunt retorts that most of the Waterstone's estate is also primarily in middle-class areas – "because that is where people who buy books live", he says impatiently. And he believes that many of the same principles he uses at Daunt Books will apply, primarily the pursuit of excellence. "If the book shops are good enough, people will have a real passion for them," he says. "Plenty of Daunt customers use Amazon and have Kindles, but they still come into my bookshops."

His first task will be to revive staff morale, which had sunk to an all-time low as Waterstone's future under HMV hung in the balance. "In a retail business employing 4,500 staff, the people really matter. They must be empowered and engaged," says Daunt, who prides himself on keeping his senior people for a long time. "There are 24 people who have been with me between five and 18 years." That is why he has no fears for Daunt Books, which will be run by some of those people in the three to four years he estimates it will take to restore the Waterstone's patient to full health.

At Waterstone's, he hopes to foster a similar atmosphere: "The bookshops will become more autonomous so that people who work and shop there have a sense of ownership."

There are, though, some obvious differences. It will not be practical to end Waterstone's three-for-two books policy, and the range will be broader. In the past, Daunt has said he would never sell a book he did not like. He wavers a little: "I will still have thresholds. I would never sell porn or gratuitous violence."

There will also be more sheer celebration of books. At Daunt Books, something is always going on, whether it be a book launch, a talk by a local author, or a visit to a school. "A bookshop is part of the community," he says. "People buy tickets to hear an author talk, chat, have a glass of wine and afterwards everyone feels good about being in a bookshop."

Some of this can be injected into Waterstone's and he intends to make each store more geared to its local market – intriguingly just what Marc Bolland was saying about his plans for Marks & Spencer last week.

And what of the future of "The Hub", the hugely expensive centralised ordering system at Waterstone's into which orders to publishers disappear for weeks? He gives me a withering look. "I would fear for that, wouldn't you?"

Instead he intends to let each bookshop do its own ordering using sophisticated computer systems. "You know there are computers that manipulate data brilliantly."

Daunt's ancestors date back first to Gloucestershire in early medieval times and then to generations of priests all called Achilles Daunt in County Cork, where there is even an area known as "Daunt's country". The most famous Achilles Daunt was awarded a prize for English poetry from Dublin University in 1851 – so it is not hard to see from where Daunt gets his reverence for the written word. All male Daunts since have borne the name Achilles, including James and his father, Sir Timothy Daunt, whose career in the Foreign Office took him and his family to various exotic places such as Ankara and Nicosia before he became the British Ambassador to Turkey from 1986 to 1992. Inspired by the architecture in Turkey, James Daunt's mother, Patricia, has written a series of articles about grand Turkish palaces.

Daunt was born in October 1963, and after an early childhood in Turkey and Cyprus was sent back to prep school in cold and windy Seaford in Sussex, and then to Sherborne in Dorset, his father's old school.

He did not fit in. "In a place where everyone was someone – head of house, captain of this or that – I wasn't anything." Yet he enjoyed sport, playing as a back in the rugby team. "I'm fast and I would chase after any ball. Cricket was too slow for me."

He did well academically, cruising into Cambridge, where he read history, and met his wife, Katy Steward, now a senior professional in the health sector. The careers office suggested banking to Daunt; JP Morgan was interviewing and offered him a job in New York, where he stayed for the second half of the 1980s, a boom time for stock-market activity. "It was a fantastic job, a fabulous, all-consuming job that was personally satisfying but hopeless for personal relationships," he says.

The power of love proved stronger, so he quit and began to think what to do. "I liked travelling and I liked books but I could never find the sort of bookshop that I needed," he says. "You could get the guide and the map to a country or town, but not the novels or biographies relating to the area. I decided to design a bookshop I wanted to visit."

So, in March 1990, he set up Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street, central London, with an Edwardian feel and half the upstairs and all the downstairs grouped by country. Then the early-Nineties recession hit and by 1994 Daunt Books, Whistles, Greens the newsagents and Boots were practically the only shops in the street still open for business. Yet his bookshop thrived, Marylebone High Street became one of the most eclectic shopping streets in London, and Daunt opened more shops, two in Hampstead, where he lives, and one in Notting Hill. Part of his philosophy has been to sell books at full price, yet remarkably he has added three new shops since the financial crash of 2008 in the teeth of heavy discounting from Amazon, the supermarkets and to a lesser extent, Waterstone's. Daunt has said that sales in 2009 hit £7m, while the latest accounts show profits of £613,000 for that year.

What his backer and new best friend, Alexander Mamut, must be hoping is that he can achieve the same level of profitability at Waterstone's.

Curriculum Vitae

1963: Born October, in East Sussex

1976: Sherborne School, Dorset

1981: Reads history at Cambridge University

1984: Joins JP Morgan in New York

1990: Opens Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street

Drives: A bicycle

Favourite music: Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes

Last holiday: Ethiopia

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