It seems to be my habit to talk about the state of Waterstones from time to time and I'm sure I've made my feelings about kindle's plain in the past (good in there way but not for me). It's a habit I'm not alone in, fellow bloggers, newspapers, and plenty of the people I work with all give versions of these things an airing - this very week in a chat with the company chairman (I say chat, but it was all very corporate...) he held forth on the death of the high street.
Having worked for a few retailers now (not many of whom are still in business - a coincidence I'm sure) I have my own opinions about this. I don't think the high street is on it's last legs, I don't think the book is in any particular danger from e-readers; books are more than just something to read, equally owning books and reading books are, alas, not quite the same thing and I think Waterstones might just have a bright future.
Admittedly I loathe shopping on-line; I don't care to share my card details farther than is strictly necessary, know too many people who have had pay-pal accounts hacked, and more than anything else hate the hassle of waiting for deliveries, missing deliveries, tracking down deliveries, missing the delivery again (why courier companies are only prepared to deliver during my work hours is a source of never ending frustration, and don't get me started on being ransomed to get my own goods at a time I might be at home) . I like going into a shop, finding something I want, paying for it, going home.
When I do order on-line I feel a lifting of the heart when I see it's Royal Mail delivery - the Post Office has at least a pick up office in town (and not somewhere in the hinterland of Coalville or similar and unreachable by any form of public transport) that's open at reasonable hours and they don't often want to see my passport or non existent driving licence. Better yet I adore John Lewis' Click and Collect - order and pick up from the shop. Problem with your goods - that's okay they'll deal with it there and then and no nonsense about re posting and any questions can be given to a real live helpful person. It works for me.
Still an actual shop is better and Waterstones is a good example of a company that feels like it's finding it's way again. Leicester has two branches, neither of them large, both developing a distinct personality, and both full of helpful, knowledgeable, staff. It is my deep held conviction that if a business has a decent proposition (like selling books) and is confidant enough to stick with it, it should do okay. You can't always compete but it isn't always necessary, or even desirable to try. If amazon and the supermarkets can undercut on best-selling titles that's fine, let them - they can't be making a lot of money and I think there are enough people out there (like me) who find the physical bookshop offer things that amazon can't - the unlimited choice might not be there but the chance of finding something tempting by chance is (also they will let you use their sellotape in an emergency) and I'm prepared to pay a pound or two more for that.
More importantly shops are somewhere to go too, to meet people in, to look at things in. How we do business is evolving, I just don't believe it's changing as much as some pundits would have us believe. From what I can see my Waterstones' are doing a lot better than they were eighteen months ago (I'd love to ask but doubt they'd tell) there seem to be more customers, the range is better, and the staff seem more upbeat. In the current economic conditions all of that's heartening. I hope it lasts and I hope they go on to be one of the great success stories coming out of the recession.