Christmas shopping is in full swing as I walk down Marylebone High Street towards my rendezvous with the bookseller James Daunt. A few minutes south, on Oxford Street, the panic is palpable but here it is a relatively civilised affair, the crowds thinner, the promotions muted, the decorations more discreet. The area feels true to its reputation as a “hidden gem” of London’s West End, a place of upscale authenticity where even film stars with genteel pretensions can browse in peace.
The jewel in the crown is the bookshop at number 83, opened by Daunt 21 years ago and now the flagship of a six-strong chain of shops, all in London. Built in 1910 in High Edwardian style, the premises are undeniably beautiful, opening out into a long, galleried back room bathed in natural light from a glass roof and high arched window. If the architecture has an ecclesiastical feel, then the objects of veneration are clear enough: piled high on artfully mismatched wooden tables, Daunt’s selections are uncompromising in their quality, with celebrity biographies, pulp fiction and discount stickers all notably absent.
Until this summer, Daunt Books was little known outside the prosperous areas in which it trades, its tote bags an unlikely accessory of choice among north London sixth-formers. But that all changed in May when Alexander Mamut, a Russian billionaire and himself a regular at Daunt’s Holland Park branch in west London, bought the ailing 300-strong chain Waterstone’s from HMV and installed his favourite bookseller as managing director. The quietly profitable shop in Marylebone began to look like something else entirely: a template for the regeneration of the last large specialist book retailer left standing on Britain’s high streets.
We are meeting at Caffè Caldesi, a bar-restaurant just off the High Street that offers an efficient, metropolitan take on Italian regional fare. I arrive 15 minutes early, so I am led upstairs and seated at a window beside an illustrated map of Italy’s regional specialities. Daunt walks in moments later – he seems slightly surprised, a man used to arriving first – and we begin our conversation in an empty room, the waiting staff rolling on the balls of their feet as they wait for the lunchtime rush to begin.
Daunt, 48, is tall and professorial, smart but unaffectedly so in his white check shirt, blue check tie and well-worn dark jacket. I ask what he can recommend on the menu, assuming that he is a regular, but it turns out he has been here just a few times before and has little recollection of what he ate. The restaurant’s significance lies rather in the fact that it was the one place in the area he could think of. Marylebone does not seem short of restaurants to me; Terence Conran’s Orrery is just up the road, for a start. But Daunt seems to be a man whose mind is on higher things. “Maybe I should have chosen somewhere really outrageous,” he reflects.
On cue, a goatee-bearded waiter glides over to our table. Daunt orders – a mozzarella starter followed by ravioli – without ceremony or seemingly a great deal of thought. I choose in the same spirit, opting for goats’ cheese wrapped in pancetta followed by risotto. The waiter asks whether we would like wine. I look across hopefully at Daunt but he has already declined; I ask for a bottle of sparkling water to create a sense of occasion.
As we are just minutes from where it all began, I want to know what drew him to bookselling. “It really wasn’t very much more complicated than that I was extremely young,” he replies with what I will soon realise is characteristic self-effacement. Daunt, the son of a diplomat, had studied history at Cambridge before spending four years working for JP Morgan, first in New York and then in London. “I’d stopped the banking, not because I had any difficulty with the job – in fact I loved it – but because it just wasn’t working from a personal point of view. I thought if I’m not going to do that office job, which was about as good as an office job as I could imagine, then I had to do something else. And I like travelling and I like reading and it really wasn’t more sophisticated than that.”
Was it something in his family, I wonder? I am intrigued by what I have read of his forebears, who include generations of clergymen in County Cork called Achilles Daunt, the most famous of whom won a prize for poetry in 1851. He smiles: “Well, it’s news to me ... ” At that moment our starters arrive and Daunt concedes: “It’s one of those families that managed to sit more or less in their singular place and do absolutely nothing for century after century, contribute the odd churchman and, yes, maybe win the odd poetry prize, but basically they were modestly prosperous.” This is only good manners, of course, but still one can read a certain ancestral pride in the fact that Waterstone’s is now registered at Companies House under the directorship of Achilles James Daunt.
As for Marylebone, that was a straightforward decision too. “It was a large bookshop and it was extremely long and narrow, which meant it was relatively cheap.” I point to the absence of large chains nearby but Daunt takes issue with my characterisation of its High Street as an elite enclave. “Personally, and rather heretically, I think it’s anchored by a big chain, Waitrose. You can buy a pint of milk on it and that’s really important. There’s a community there. I know most of my customers” – it strikes me that he often slips into the present tense when talking of Daunt Books, even though he is no longer involved in the day-to-day running of the shops – “and I spend my day talking to people whose names I know, who know me and whose reading habits I know. The heart of it is the locals, and I think that’s the key.”
Localism is central to his vision for Waterstone’s, a company that transformed UK bookselling in the decade following its launch in 1982 but which has struggled in recent years due to declining sales and furious competition from the internet. He is frank about the retailer’s shortcomings but points to a few areas that have changed for the better. One of his first acts was to end the “three-for-two” deal, under which publishers would pay to be part of the promotions at the front of the store. He talks with bemusement of the “planograms” sent to branches specifying exactly where each book should be displayed: “I assumed it was something that you did as you planned things. I didn’t know it was a photograph that you actually follow, and I found that completely extraordinary.”
Three-for-two has been replaced by promotions on individual books – a move likely to hit profits in the short term but one that he hopes will allow Waterstone’s booksellers to do more to reflect their communities. “Clearly we want a different offer in Romford to Islington,” he says. “I would expect on Upper Street on a Saturday for a significant number of people to be reading your paper and coming in and buying the books you review. I suspect fewer are walking down Romford High Street thinking: ‘Oh, the new Norman Davies looks really interesting’.”
The silent dining room in which we began our conversation has filled up to capacity and it is sometimes difficult to hear the soft-spoken Daunt above the background roar. I ask him what it means to “curate” a bookshop, which is how he often describes his job. “It’s my favourite word at the moment. It is about how you theme a table, the juxtaposition of books within it. One book will sell another.”
Has he heard, I wonder, of “showrooming”? He looks alarmed. “No. It sounds slightly dubious.” I am referring to the practice of browsing in bookstores before purchasing online at a discount, which, according to a recent survey, more than a third of Amazon customers had done over a given period. “You can do it with every single product you buy, just about,” he says. “It undoubtedly happens in books. So how do you win the loyalty and trust and acceptance of your customers so that they limit the degree to which they do that? I think that’s probably what we don’t have at the moment. We certainly don’t have enough of it.”
He was recently quoted as having referred to Amazon as “a ruthless money-making devil” that did not operate in the consumer’s interest – comments that generated an angry response in some quarters. Playing devil’s advocate, I ask: isn’t it up to consumers to decide what is more important, the price or a congenial experience? “I wouldn’t disagree with that at all,” he says. “Oddly enough, completely contrary to that headline, I genuinely don’t feel sorry for myself. As long as I deliver something that people enjoy, I’ll be fine.”
Daunt has been more than a champion of Waterstone’s since he took over this summer; he has also raised his voice in support of libraries as spending cuts force many to close. “I blame the [local] councils, fair and square,” says Daunt. “I think the government should tell them, full stop. I just feel there’s something about the philanthropy and the endowment that put them there in the first place. What right do we have to undo that? No more right than we had to sell our playing fields.”
While Daunt has drawn parallels between the role played by libraries and by Waterstone’s in promoting a culture of reading, he has stressed that the latter’s problems are its own to solve. I wonder whether this is entirely true: in many European countries, minimum prices have constrained Amazon’s in-roads into the book trade. And though no one expects a return of the net book agreement that once supported independent booksellers, is there not anything else that government could do?
Daunt pauses, refilling our glasses. “The only thing that could be done and I think should be done is that the ‘Luxembourg problem’ shouldn’t exist” – he is referring to Amazon’s tax domicile in Europe. “I find it peculiar that the government taxes us on the high street heavily through the business rates when our major competitor, which is obviously the internet, is not taxed at all and in fact runs itself in an aggressively tax-efficient manner.”
Our plates are taken away. We both decline dessert and order double espressos. I ask how he found his meal. He looks as though he hasn’t given it any thought at all: “It’s rather good, actually.”
I am keen to get Daunt’s perspective on the literary year. He says he has not been reading enough but comments approvingly on the absence of really big sellers. This is a good thing? “Yes, there’s much more browsing going on than there’s been in past years where you have these blockbusters. People come in, buy the book and it’s done, and that makes it somewhat less interesting.”
I ask what he thought of this year’s Man Booker shortlist, which came under fire for its populist leanings. “I definitely enjoyed the controversy,” he says. “The books were hugely accessible and dramatically lighter than they’ve been before and therefore sold in bucketloads, which is great. All in all, it worked in a completely perfect way.” But what of the literary names who missed out? “Oddly enough, the Hollinghursts and so on were selling equally well – it really couldn’t have been better.”
And what is he looking forward to next year? “The thing that interests me is the unknown,” he says. “We will clearly make enormous amounts of money out of the new William Boyd but personally, this doesn’t excite me. It’s that funny little personal book that somebody’s been sitting in their garret scribbling away at for the last five years and is a work of extraordinary imagination, that’s what I’m looking for.”
Daunt recently started a proof by a writer whose name he cannot recall – he later emails to tell me it is The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen – that made a big impression. “It doesn’t happen very often, when you open up a book and you read 50 pages and you think, ‘Oh my Lord’. It was absolutely great.” Bringing out a battered iPad from a voluminous canvas bag, he starts looking for it on the Waterstone’s website – without much success. “I’m not sure it’ll even be on here. We need to fix this, by the way. Goodness me.”
We have been here for two hours and the dining room is almost back to how we found it. Daunt rises to takes his leave, planning to spend the afternoon wandering around some branches of Waterstone’s. At this time of year, he says, “how quickly you can move a queue really matters.” He delivers a brief disquisition on the finer points of queue processing with an enthusiasm that well befits the “shop-floor bookseller” that he has described himself as repeatedly during our lunch. Then he heads out to brave the December crowds.
After settling the bill, I wander back up the road for one last look at Daunt Books. As always, I find much to covet. Prominent in one display is a beautiful illustrated edition of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, on sale at the recommended retail price of £25. I wonder how much it costs on Amazon but quickly dismiss the thought, unworthy as it seems in the house of Achilles Daunt.
Lorien Kite is the FT’s books editor
118 Marylebone Lane, London W1
Caprino con pancetta £9.50
Mozzarella di bufala £9.75
Ravioli di barbabietola £12.50
Risotto zucca e salsiccia £12.80
Double espresso x 2 £5.20
San Pellegrino water £3.00
Total (including service) £59.34
Booksellers and authors – 18th-century style: John Brewer opens the doors of Grub Street
The first step to becoming an author was to find a publisher, an intimidating first step best accomplished in person. Authors sought out publishers in the numerous booksellers’ shops and offices that huddled in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral and they took their manuscripts to the Chapter Coffee House on Paternoster Row, where many booksellers, stationers and printers carried on their business.
Confronting a bookseller directly was not possible for many provincial writers, of course. They had to use the postal service, choosing a bookseller, often with local advice, whose imprint they had seen in newspaper advertisements or on title pages. In 1759, Laurence Sterne, then an unknown cleric in York, sent his unsolicited manuscript of Tristram Shandy to Robert Dodsley on the recommendation of John Hinxman, a local bookseller.
His accompanying letter, with its grasshopper prose, is inimitable but typical in its anxiety to persuade the bookseller that the work had both literary merit and commercial value: “If this 1st Volume has a run (wch such Criticks as this Latitude affords say it can’t fail of) We may both find our Account in it – the Book will sell ...”
Dodsley was not convinced. He refused to pay the £50 that Sterne wanted for the copyright.
Whether the writer approached a bookseller in person or solicited support through importunate correspondence, the author’s reception was rarely warm, occasionally tepid and often cold. The arrogance and hauteur of the bookseller, brilliantly captured in Thomas Rowlandson’s pen-and-wash drawing was an authorial cliché and longstanding grievance. Still, Rowlandson’s sneering bookseller, whose corpulent prosperity contrasts with the cringing emaciated figure of the imploring author, is a caricature ...
Most members of the trade were prudent, honest and conservative men of business who faced problems that many authors were eager to avoid. The bookseller bore the risk of publication and needed to make a profit. He was inundated with manuscripts, many of which lacked merit or commercial value. The sheer volume of material made it hard for him to discriminate, to pick out the work that would prove a success.
An edited extract from ‘The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century’, by John Brewer (Fontana, 1997)