/ Shopping

Independent shops: is it important they’re truly independent?

Portobello Road independents

Waterstones has opened three unbranded bookshops, which may appear to look like independents. The move has apparently left some shoppers feeling tricked. But how do you feel about them?

When I was growing up, there were very few chains on my hometown’s high street.

There was a Boots, a Dewhurst butchers, a Freeman Hardy & Willis, a Woolies, Waitrose and WHSmith.

The rest were independent shops that had been run by the same families for generations.

Sometime in the late 1980s, Dorothy Perkins arrived to much fanfare. Then a branch of New Look.

These days, that same high street looks like pretty much every other across the UK, with well-known clothes stores interspersed with Costa Coffee and Starbucks shops.

Independent minded

Now when I’m visiting a high street I’m not familiar with, you can bet your boots I’ll be drawn to the independent shops; the little boutiques selling quirky tops and frocks or the homeware stores purveying irresistible cushions and kitchen gadgets I had no idea I needed.

Had I been visiting either Rye, Southwold or Harpenden, there’s a good chance I would have wandered into the towns’ little blue-fronted bookshops that have come under much fire this week.

The quaint little bookshops that are actually owned by Waterstones.

Hypothetically, would I have gone in these shops had I know they were actually Waterstones?

Probably not.

Why would I when I can head to any other high street and find one, and the flagship store in Piccadilly (which is worth a visit, by the way) is just a Tube ride away?

In fairness to Waterstones, each of these shops did have a sign in their window saying they were run by the company and locals were well aware of the situation.

By why not brand them as Little Waterstones instead, so you know exactly what you’re getting?

Spell it out

I felt the same when I discovered the Hoole + Harris artisan coffee shop in Crouch End, was, in fact, run by Tesco.

I doubt I’d have chosen Tesco, which has since sold the business on, for a hot beverage when there are independents around.

I’ve got nothing against the likes of Waterstones or Tesco per se, it’s just that in a time when increased business rates are threatening the very existence of independents, I’d rather support them.

I figure the big boys will be able to look after themselves.

And when I do buy from an independent, I want to know it’s just that.

Do you want your independents to be bona fide independents? What sort of shops do you head to on the high street? Independents/local shops or big chains?


I want to know who I am doing business with and am getting fed up with the deception of brands hiding themselves under various guises and names.

Would anyone really have a problem with them opening a little Waterstones store in those areas? They can still design a shop front that fits in with the area, but the name above the door should say Waterstones.

A statement to the BBC by the Chief executive James Daunt ‘I think I have always acted and worked as an independent book seller and I would love for everyone who works for me does so likewise.’ could suggest Waterstones are setting them up to turn them into franchises in the future.


I would agree on the franchise line Alfa , everybody knows what a Waterstones bookshop is like and sells but many book connoisseurs prefer a small independent book store with many old antique type books , thats what I prefer as I have spent my life reading. Waterstones have tried many promotions over the years to attract profit as they realise book reading is (generally ) a dying art. here,s what the Queensland Government thinks – franchises- entering into a formal agreement with your franchisor– those agreements dictate how you run your business -you are restricted in what you sell /suppliers–bad performance by other franchisors effect your business reputation–you share your profit with the franchisor –franchisors don’t have to renew an agreement at the end of the franchise term. Australian advice – set up your OWN small business .


I originally didn’t think with was a big issue, until I entered “Waterstones tax avoidance” into google. And yes if I was boycotting a company for whatever reason, then I would be unhappy that they weren’t being more open about their name and FYI small print doesn’t count.


Well spotted william.

Multiple branding is a sure way dodgy companies use in their efforts to avoid paying taxes.


Sadly we have lost most of our small grocers and greengrocers with the success of supermarkets and more recently these supermarkets opening local convenience stores. Thankfully these are still branded as Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, and so on. It is disappointing to learn that Tesco has moved into coffee shops trading under a different name. I like Melanie’s suggestion to brand the small bookshops as ‘Little Waterstones’ etc but let us have that done by the company and not its critics.

Years ago we learned that many the more expensive confectionery brands are owned by bigger companies yet despite media attention, many are still unaware of what is going on.


There has always been some opacity about who owns what and this matters if, like William, you have an objection to trading with a firm which doesn’t ‘behave properly’ . The point of small bookshops is that they should be unique and have an atmosphere that invites one to explore. If the shelves contain the same stock as elsewhere and the man/woman behind the counter is less of an artisan and more an employee, this ruins the experience and perhaps gives the game away. A visit to Hay on Wye is a pilgrimage worth taking and there are other such centres where the printed page supplants the digital screen and books, long out of print can be found and enjoyed again. Such centres also attract authors, historians and philosophers who lecture and discuss ideas with an interested audience.


I am not surprised that Waterstones chose Southwold and Rye to try out their latest novelty, but I was surprised to see that Harpenden had also been selected. Southwold and Rye are timewarp gems with mostly traditional shops selling curious goods at high prices in endless conservation areas replete with gentle colour schemes and ornamental accoutrements. They teem with tourists, however, who – in their innocence – might easily be taken in by the harmonious shopfront with its elegant sign-writing. But Harpenden? I thought that was just another one of Hertfordshire’s property hot-spots but handy for Luton. All very nice and comfortable but not quaint and picturesque, and surely not a magnet for visitors, so what is Waterstones’ game?

I was saddened when Waterstones bought up Ottakars bookshops – a smaller national chain but more enterprising; they soon closed down any duplicate branches. Borders, another big bookstore operation, closed in the UK soon after. Amazon was the killer in all these cases.

Most Waterstones bookshops are boring, uniform, slaves to the publishers, and more interested in running a coffee shop. I prefer independents. There is a very good book department in the excellent independent department store in Norwich where I frequently secrete myself in one of the comfy leather armchairs while my fashionable accomplice explores the ladies’ wear floors. It also has its own in-house coffee corner called Chapters.


Melanie – I remember Crouch End when it had a large independent department store, four independent bookshops, quite a few art/artists’ materials shops, and lots of local independent traders selling all a household needs. These shops were sustained by the former Hornsey College of Art up the hill which was one of the leading and more progressive art colleges in the country. All the roads leading off The Broadway were full of students; I don’t suppose a student could afford to live there now – they can barely afford to buy books.