/ 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.

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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.

The department store was called Wilson’s and it ran along the western side of the Broadway from where Budgens is [or was when I was last there] up to Crouch Hall Road. It was demolished many years ago now and replaced with new blocks. The block nearest the Clocktower [now Waitrose I believe] used to be Woolworths but it closed some time before Woolworths ceased trading and became a furniture and homewares store. The town hall campus was one of the finest municipal and public utility set-ups in the country with the Hornsey Electricity Department on the left, the original MOUntview telephone exchange behind it [still there but in different use], and the Hornsey Gas Department [now Barclays Bank] on the right; the Town Hall and Public Theatre sat back behind a green and fountains and the Public Library was to the side of the Town Hall on Haringey Park. Residents could pay their rates, council house rents, telephone bill, gas bill and electricity bill and take their library books back within a few paces; water was the odd one out as that came under the Metropolitan Water Board. The Post Office was also close by next to the Music Hall [now a fitness club I think]. The gas offices had a public demonstration theatre to help people make the most of their gas appliances and ran popular cookery classes. The Hornsey College of Art became part of Middlesex Polytechnic [now University] and built a new art & design campus at Cockfosters [or ‘coasters’ as some of us pronounced it]. When I last lived in north London there were seven dry cleaners in Crouch End. It was, and still might be, Consumer Central.

Melanie – If you pop along to the Hornsey Historical Society at The Old Schoolhouse, 161 Tottenham Lane N8 [corner of Rokesley Avenue] on a Saturday morning when they are open you will able to see [and buy] a number of small books about Crouch End. They also had an illustrated feature on Wilson’s a year or two ago in their annual Bulletin – I am sure they could show you a copy.

It is difficult to support independent shops for mainstream requirements because they hardly exist any more. The supermarkets and the internet have almost entirely wiped them out. I particularly regret the loss of independent hardware stores which sold everything from dolls’ eyes to fly-papers. There are a few left in our part of Norfolk but they all involve a considerable journey. Not only do they sell things that the DIY sheds don’t bother with but they can get anything in for you within a day or two. I always come out of the genuine shops with more than I had on my list but when I go to a DIY store I usually can’t get everything I want even though I know it’s in their inventory, and browsing in their soulless muzak-infested hangars is no pleasure. The trouble is the trend is irreversible and every year more of the independent stores go to the wall.

I think the picture at the top of this topic is somewhere in Scotland. Can anybody enlighten me?

The picture is Portobello Road, London John.
51.512962, -0.202454 in Google Maps

21 June 2010 I believe.

I am much obliged. I was deceived by the Highland Store and thought the Portobello Print & Map Shop [far right of picture] might indicate that the street was in the eponymous suburb of Edinburgh. What a shame – Portobello Road [West London] has obviously lost all its earthy charm and character and is now just another tourist hot-spot. I used to like its run-down grubbiness, and rummaging around for superb bargains in second-hand crud. I bought many a historic artefact there like early theatre programmes and film posters, pub mirrors and enamel advertising signs. The street market was featured in the opening titles of the TV programme Only Fools and Horses which also showed the unmodernised branch of Woolworths. Since Portobello Road today shows an almost artificial shopping street I am not sure the image at the top of the page is truly appropriate to the topic – except that that’s the way those in affluent areas are all going. Perhaps we should draw up a list of the top ten normal high streets [or has someone already done that?].

Oops. I meant to include this link: https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/london-june-21-visitor-watches-shop-305128541

Many of the images featured in Convo introductions are from this source but obviously licensed because they are not watermarked.

On the Shutterstock caption I notice that Portobello Road is described by TripAdvisor as one of the top 15 shopping destinations in London. That must mean it is number fifteen. I suspect it is the ambience rather than the shopping that is the draw. I don’t think Bond Street needs to worry.

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Thanks, Duncan. That’s a useful clue. I should have apprehended that when trying to divine the location.

Do most people know who owns any small or even large shop , store ,company or any other business ?? Many would be surprised to find who actually owns what and where or who the profits made are going too .These things can be discovered by using the internet but can take time as they are sometimes carefully hidden as they do not want many people to know

An independent shop is set up by someone to make a profit and enhance their own wealth, not as a social enterprise. They should stand on their own feet financially if they are to survive. I do not see why I should be expected otherwise to subsidise someone else’s attempts to make money.

Maybe if we raise more tax from the large companies that would help smaller businesses.

I’m happy to spend tax helping vulnerable deserving individuals, social care, the NHS, education and so on. But should my tax be spent in subsidising individuals who are in business to make themselves more wealthy? Investors and loans are available to support profitable ventures that can stand on their own feet. Tax should support deserving people who cannot – in my view. Maybe when the state is awash with spare money I might think differently.

And it’s here we enter the incredibly convoluted world of Taxation, economics and magic. One argument is that by having more small businesses you produce a higher tax revenue, simply because these businesses will pay rates to the local council at the appropriate rate (!) whereas the larger companies are already remarkably adept at using the UK Panamanian loot-coops to avoid paying any too much tax.

I suggested raising more tax from the larger companies, not subsidising the smaller ones. If we fail to act we could end up with the market dominated by the big players, as with supermarkets. An independent shop may be run by one person but that is not always the case.

Ethical Consumer 2016

“Waterstones, Alibris, Google, Amazon, Nook and Apple all received our worst rating for likely involvement in tax avoidance strategies.
Waterstones’ parent company is located in Bermuda.
Alibris is owned by a private equity firm which owns high risk companies in the Cayman Islands and Bermuda.
Google is registered in Delaware and has high risk companies in Bermuda. It has admitted that although the vast majority of its profits are made in Bermuda, it has zero employees there.[1] ”

Decent pre-loved bookshops are also rare and I was fortunate that there is a very good one in Oxted [Surry/Kent border]. There is also a very nice one in Henley-on Thames up a small side street though threatened by the Oxfam book juggernaut.

People travel from London and further afield for the randomness of what might be found. There have been more good books printed in the past than are on sale now – not something publishers wish to mention.

It seems insane to me that when one can buy the original Penguin murder mysteries for £2 people are buying them new for £8 as re-prints. Latest paperbacks are £1 a time.

I do have slightly over 2100 books and courtesy of the excellent Libraything I can tell you that stacked flat a top of each other that is 401ft . Another 49 ft and that is the height of the Great Pyramid. Shelving normally takes more space particularly one you have sections.!

Prized books include the complete Far Side in two volume slip case. In fact humour forms 5% of the collection,and gardening, and cooking ditto.

Mel’s introduction contains a link to a Telegraph article that includes this photo:

From the article: However, managing director James Daunt denied that Waterstones was using “subterfuge” to attract customers, and said he wanted the company to have stores with their own identities.
He said: “We don’t pretend we are not Waterstones. The idea that this is some type of subterfuge is ridiculous.”

Sorry Mr Daunt. I expect more responsible behaviour from a British company.

If someone else had framed the response it would have been set forth Dauntless…

Mr Daunt has ruffled a few feathers in the past when Waterstone’s apostrophe was dropped by the company: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/retailandconsumer/9007692/Waterstones-drops-its-apostrophe.html According to this article he said: It also reflects an altogether truer picture of our business today which, while created by one, is now built on the continued contribution of thousands of individual booksellers. Maybe he has now decided we don’t really need lots of individual booksellers.

If it’s not subterfuge then I don’t know what is. Perhaps “deception” would be a better word.

I have to admit that it’s a nice shopfront. The blue tiles on the stall-risers are probably new but the rest looks original.

It might be a nice distinctive style for all Waterstones shops to adopt, but maybe a daunting task to make the change.

If the bookshop “Southwold Books” sells books that people want to buy, what is wrong with who owns it? I do enjoy looking around secondhand bookshops for quirky volumes – I’ve recently bought a 1930’s book on aircraft design and a 1920-ish Autocar handbook including a section on the workings of a Model T Ford and its peculiar driving instructions. But if it can’t make money then an alternative has to be found. I can now search for books on-line, but that excludes the pleasure of thumbing through the real thing and seeing something interesting – browsing.

Maybe independent business could do what the antique trade has done. Faced with declining interest they opened antique centres where several traders share space and costs.

I think what is wrong with the Southwold Books case is that people might be more disposed to support a small local independent bookseller and buy something there as a souvenir of their visit to the town than if they knew it was just another branch of a big national bookstore chain with the same standard stock. It is almost certain that Waterstones would not have got planning permission to put up one of their standard national black shopfronts in the main shopping areas of Southwold as it would have been out of character with the conservation area. Other national chains have hit similar objections there. So Waterstones went in under the radar, didn’t need planning permission because it was the same commercial use class and they weren’t changing the frontage, and opened what to all appearances is a small local independent bookshop. A small sign in the window says it is run by Waterstones – so why not put their proper name across the nameboard in appropriately elegant lettering? The Waterstones house-style font is actually quite attractive so it would not have looked out of place scaled down to suit the small shopfront, but it would not seem so homely as the bijou “Southwold Books”. The postcard rack and the A-board on the pavement add to the stage-managed non-corporate effect.

This seems all part of the general discussion of who owns what, and when we buy a “brand” who actually makes it. We don’t generally know. At least Southwold has a bookshop. Would it have had one otherwise? I still suggest we should look at combined enterprises where a number of businesses share premises and resources. maybe even with basic post office facilities.

In some cities and towns, McDonalds and other companies are not allowed to use their normal garish shop fronts, which would look out of place. At least the restrained styling of the shop fronts still makes it easy to identify the company. I agree with John that the company should be identified on the nameboard.

There was another bookshop in Southwold now taken over by W.H.Smith.

W.H.Smith, Tesco Express, Co-op, Costa, all have their names on their store fronts so I cannot see any reason why Waterstones could not put their name above the door unless they want to deceive you of course.

Southwold books used to be the Southwold Information Centre. Waterstones have retained the blue tiles but put a new fascia above the shop front.

Does anyone remember the distinctively different Marks and Spencer store in the Grainger Market in Newcastle upon Tyne?

I don’t know if it is still there but at least the company’s name is identified. I’m not sure about the significance of ‘Admission free’.

To say something positive, our university campus branch of Waterstones was extremely helpful and would check the availability and price of books that were not in stock, take orders and keep me aware of the progress when it proved a challenge to source a book. Twice a year they contacted lecturers to find out which books would be recommended for the following semester and the service was exceptional.

I have shopped in Waterstones on many occasions and it is always my first port of call when travelling somewhere new. And the staff have always been very helpful and searched and ordered a book for me if I can’t find what I want.

But I dislike deception and the way brands use multiple names to deceive us as it makes them less trustworthy. So I hope Waterstones will see this and put their own name above the door in the very near future. They don’t have anything to hide do they?

I absolutely agree, Alfa. I’ve been aware of badge engineering since the 70s but I’m grateful for your repeated efforts to make us more aware of what goes on behind our backs.

Look at the website for Green & Black’s chocolate and it is not obvious that it is part of the Mondelez empire at present – though that could change at any time.

I was never sure whether Green & Black’s was ever an authentic company name. It was taken over by Cadbury’s quite a while before Cadbury’s was acquired by Kraft [Kraft-Heinz now] and subsequently placed under the Mondelez umbrella.

I used to be doubtful about Baylis & Harding [‘luxury’ liquid soap etc] but there is in fact a Baylis & Harding PLC. It could still be a made-up name though, although its heritage goes all the way back to 1970.

I used to prefer it when company names were the names of the founders or owners of the companies, but the genie is out of the bottle now and we’ll never get it back.

Robert says:
7 March 2017

Independent businesses are being hit by high business rates and ridiculously high rents, also the large companies have much better buying power so are able to undercut the small independent for the same products.

The other hit small shops are taking is the public love going online for cheap prices and want it delivered to their door, so the likes of Amazon are making a fortune at the expense of the small independents who offer a personal service but can’t compete.

If you don’t use them you will lose all of those specialist businesses and the knowledge they offer, so if you want the convenience and prices offered on the internet or decide to use the out of town stores the high street will be even more coffee shops, burger bars, charity shops or worse shutters and graffiti.

We complain on the one hand about the cost of living, and then complain about being able to buy goods cheaper online. Funny old world. I will deal with independent shops from choice, for a variety of reasons, but do not choose to subsidise someone who is in business to make themselves money; they need to stand on their own feet.

Many areas ouside London are seeing reductions in business rates that will help their profitability.

Robert says:
7 March 2017

A reduction in business rates would be a good start but it will take more than this to keep small business’s profitable, and as for standing on their own two feet no one gives them any handouts and quiet often are financed from the individual owners own pocket.

Also what is the point of owning a business big or small if it isn’t to make money?

I totally agree. If a business is not profitable, unless someone subsidises it, it will fail. Maybe its business model is unsound, maybe the landlord requires too high a rent, maybe the need for what it sells has declined, maybe people can buy cheaper elsewhere. If independent shops are to survive they need to work out a way of competing profitably. I like independent shops and hope people will patronise them. But I would not generally pay significantly more for a product simply to do that. Others may.