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  • James Ward

Waterstones and how it caught me by surprise

Updated: Mar 21

About two years ago, I went to London with my wife to look at some Chinese porcelain in the British museum. There’d been a programme about it on BBC4 about a fortnight before - China in Six Easy Pieces presented by Lars Tharp - and it had piqued my interest. Anyway, after we were done, we decided to go to Fortnum & Mason for ironic reasons: because it’s a free country, and no one can stop us. On the way, we passed Waterstones and I noticed a banner in the window that read, “Haruki Murakami signs his latest book here! 11am, Saturday August 30!”


Now, sadly, this was 4pm, but I’d read most of Mr Murakami’s books, and since there wasn’t a queue outside, nor any exiting customers looking breathlessly excited, I took it he was long gone. I was right.


Probably to calm me down, my wife persuaded me to go inside. It was quite a long time since I’d been in a state-of-the-art massive bookshop because there isn’t one in the town where I work (there is a Waterstones, but it’s relatively small), and I was really impressed. I quickly forgot about the absence of Mr Murakami.


For a long time, I guess I’d taken the view that if you want a book, you can always find it on Amazon. And even if you don’t want a book - you just want to see if there is one on a certain subject - you’ll still go to Amazon, because it’s well known that if I book isn’t on Amazon it’s either (1) antiquarian or (2) non-existent. Sometimes you just browse, like you’re in an actual bookshop.


But going into Waterstones made me realise what I’d been missing. In the TV programme on Chinese porcelain, the presenter claimed you can tell a really good piece of pottery: it makes you want to pick it up and turn it round in your hands. Somehow there’s a dynamism about it. That’s what I felt about a lot of the books in Waterstones, and it’s something impossible to feel about a “book” on Amazon. Because of course, you don’t see books on Amazon. Not really.


It shocked me – I knew already, but it hit me with new force - how creative most publishers are nowadays. Books – the best ones – look like works of art. And that’s before you’ve even opened them. I could easily have scooped up forty or fifty, taken them home, and made little nests for them to sleep in. They were that lovely. But I don’t think I’ve got house-room for too many more books.


Anyway, if you’re passing Waterstones in Piccadilly, I strongly recommend you go in and take a look. Books are laid out on tables like exotic fish at a fishmonger’s. You’re not – at least, initially - confronted with a row of nondescript spines: it’s much more like going into an art gallery. Have a look at the Europa publications table on the first floor, or the Pushkin Press selection more or less next door to it. But assuming these are gone – which they probably are: nothing remains static in bookshops - the whole experience is just wow-ing.

It might be just me though. It might be just my sheltered life. Anyway, I quite liked Fortnum & Mason, as it happens, but not as much as I liked Waterstones.


Afterwards, at about 7pm, my wife and I went to Green Park and sat on deckchairs. We drank whisky from an orange juice bottle whilst talking to an old man with a metal detector. You can earn quite a lot in Green Park, apparently. He claims to make about £120 on an average day. That’s right: one hundred and twenty pounds! He dug up £3.50 while we were sitting there. He used to be in a rock band. If you see him, tell him I said hello.


And tell him there’s a good bookshop nearby where he can spend his findings.


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