World's biggest bookstore for London

Store wars: More people are buying books and retailers are getting bigger, but there may be a cost in diversity
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THE BOOK CHAIN Waterstone's announced yesterday that it is planning to open the world's biggest bookstore. The chain is in negotiations to take over the Simpson store in Piccadilly to create a seven-storey bookstore with 54,000 square feet. Next weekend Borders, a rival bookseller, is to open another giant store in Glasgow. It has plans to open similar stores in York and Leeds next year.

Waterstone's, along with Dillons - which is also part of the HMV Media Group - has more than 170 stores around Britain. The escalating size of the latest shops is a clear indication of the increasingly fierce battle for book buyers.

And there is every sign that the booksellers intend to continue opening literary superstores. "It has always seemed to work for Waterstone's," said a spokeswoman. "But a lot of research is carried out before the company decides to go ahead and open a store. It has to make sure that a community is able to support a store of that size."

Jane Elise, a spokeswoman for Borders, said the style of larger, more diverse stores was a direct import from the US where they have 200 such shops. "We like people to come in and browse and relax. We think people should get to know a book before they buy it," she said.

"We encourage people to spend time in the store. They can go to the cafe and take any of the merchandise with them. Some of the studies in the States showed that people spent an average of 45 minutes in our stores. I bumped into someone yesterday who said they had spent three hours in the store."

While the craze for bigger and bigger book stores concentrates in the larger towns and cities, elsewhere, smaller independent and family-run stores are still flourishing.

Sydney Davies, trade and industry manager for the Booksellers Association, said many independents had survived by specialising. "Many independents closed during the 1980s when Waterstone's and others first started to expand," he said. "Over the last 10 years the number of independents has been quite steady. They have survived not by trying to compete in terms of size but in the service they offer." He said of the 3,520 individual bookstores which were members of the association, around 2,000 were independent.

Borders on Oxford Street, one of an American-based chain, is typical of the new mega-bookstore. A four-storey emporium boasting a CD section, magazine sales, 18 cash-tills and even an instore cafe serving cappuccino and ciabatta, it is more akin to a shopping mall than a shop. There is even a polished black grand piano bearing the rather self- defeating sign: "The piano is reserved for performances. Please do not play."

Yesterday John Higton, a management consultant from west London was "pleasantly surprised" on his first visit there. "If I had a few hours to spend this would be a great place to wander around. It would also be ideal for Christmas. They have the lot here."

"Having the lot" is the current trend; in the world of bookselling, big is increasingly beautiful.

Figures released by the Publishers Association show the billion-pound book market is steadily increasing. But how do the smaller shops survive in the face of book superstores with their cappuccinos and celebrity signings?

"I think if there was a Waterstone's or whatever in the same street as an independent, then you would struggle," admitted Peter Hall, who runs the independent book-shop in Llandaff, Cardiff, which his mother started 17 years ago.

"We were very worried when the supermarkets started selling books, but while they might sell a large number of discounted copies of one of two titles, they do not offer the same service as us.

"We do a lot of book-ordering for people and we find they are happy to wait a couple of days, especially if it stops them having to drive into the city, park up and then walk through the rain to the super-shop."

He added: "There might be a pounds 5 discount on a book in one of the larger stores but by the time people have driven there and paid for parking, they are not really saving very much."