The strange case of the book shop improving?

What’s going on at Waterstones? Britain’s premier book chain has been a reliable destination in recent years for anyone wishing to wallow in the miseries of modern publishing and bookselling practices. It’s been all big bucks window displays and bullshit ‘staff recommendations’ alongside the depressing slew of three for two offers on books you don’t want to read. Jamie Oliver and Jordan? Dan Brown and *insert current star chick lit dribbler here*? No thanks Mr Waterstone.

But yet, but yet… Today I ventured forth to the Perth branch in search of a book on desert fauna for a three year old and was, well, surprised. And pleasantly so. The store is apparently mid revamp, some empty shelves, some books in places where they shouldn’t be, but the big shock came in what I can only describe as improved content. Yes, it’s true: there were more books on display today that I might actually want to buy than I recall seeing in the place on any visit since about 1998. 

An example: The travel literature section, hitherto a bleak repository of titles like Gorilla: Six weeks in the Congo With my Mother-in-law or some such pseudo comedic pap. I know this because last month I went searching there for a suitable gift to accompany a friend on her travels in North Africa; I looked for Colin Thubron – none, I looked for anything from the marvelous Eland publishers, undisputed Titans of the travel canon – again none; I looked, without hope, for Peter Matthiesson and his wonderful Snow Leopard book- no surprise to be disappointed there. In short, I looked for any of the great books, something that might inspire, and found… only Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between. This is a terrific book, it should be there, but would it have been if Stewart wasn’t currently standing for parliament? Whae can tell…

However, all has changed it seems, to an extent anyway. Today’s shelves were peppered with Eland titles and boasted the complete Thubron. I saw The Road to Oxiana , In Europe and more. I even bought something: Roads to Santiago by Cees Nooteboom. And I found a good animal habitats book for the three year old!

Is this a local Waterstone’s initiative, or are they improving things everywhere? Was the Perth branch just unusually crap before? Perhaps they are just trying to put some distance between themselves and their high street competition, which I assume to be WH Smith. WH Smith has a whole section called Tragic Life Stories which I think sums up their literary aspirations.

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