Saturday, March 17, 2007

Topping and Co - GO! GO! GO!

Our ex-boss Robert Topping is opening a new shop in Bath following the success of his Ely store.

There's a small piece in the Guardian today that refers to "Topping's slightly eccentric style".

Robert is a character who divides opinion. Bean counters loathe him, book lovers erm love him. I have spoken to many booksellers over the years who refer to Topping's time at Waterstone's Deansgate in Manchester as the time of their lives. I am not surprised to see he is taking a few of those ex-colleagues with him to Bath.

I also wonder how the idiots at Big W must feel now that Topping is coming to town. His version of bookselling will now go head to head with theirs. I know who I would back! (Robert recently filled Ely cathedral with people for a talk by Alan Bennett. The man is a bookselling force of nature whereas the HMV group was described by city bean counters as The Walking Dead - a company with absolutely no future)

Some people will just never get it. Bookselling is about loving books and reading them too, then sharing that experience. Money comes into it as it comes into every aspect of our lives, but it is far from the most important element.

So Go for it Robert, take Bath by storm. Good luck to all those you are taking with you on this exciting journey.


  1. Ah yes but Robert is now doing an Ottakars and going to BATH, where Nic, or Mr B`s Emporium, an exceedingly good new-ish independent bookshop is woroing exceedingly hard to make a living... there is a decent Waterstones in Bath and it is big.. there is also of course WHS, but Mr B took them on. It `s tough but he is making it.., and now along comes Topping. There really is not room for 2 indies there. Couldn`t RT have gone somewhere else where they actually need a new Indie bookshop and not pulled the rug from under Nic`s feet ?

  2. I meant to add, how would you like it if he moved higher up Lower Marsh ?

  3. I'm with Susan on this one - rather than increasing choice for people who live in places with no good bookshops he is going to crush an existing shop in a town where readers are already well served. I'm sure the shop will be fantastic, but even so.

  4. I don't know what prompted Topping to go to Bath ; perhaps he believes that he can replicate Waterstone Milsom Street figures from a rather secondary position up the road.

    Quite frankly I think that he and his backers will do their balls, and very few people will weep for them. The economics do not add up.

    It would be interesting to know how Harry Wainwright feels.

    There are many towns without a bookshop where a person with Topping's style would have been very welcome, and a decent return on capital could be made.

    I will not go so far as to say a pox on his kingdom, but really he is showing himself to be an absolutely arrogant arsehole.

  5. He could come to Edinburgh. We're a "City of Literature" with an international book festival, a host of publishers, numerous authors, several quangos such as BRAW and (I would say) a highly literature population. We have three Waterstone's and an out-of-town Borders but do we have a decent indie? Do we buffalo!

  6. Vanessar,

    I see that you mention the lack of a decent indie bookshop in central Edinburgh : what is wrong with the James Thin shop (now owned by Blackwell's) at South Bridge ?

    Blackwell's are a quality indie with excellent stock range.

  7. Blackwell's are ok, but my husband (a physicist) complained recently that they seem to concentrating heavily on academic stock - natural given that they're next door to the university. What I'd like to see is a smaller indie, not an independent but nationwide chain with almost 60 shops.

  8. Clive and Vanessar's little debate raises an interesting point. Blackwell's has 60 branches, does that make them an indie? Is there a difference between an independent bookshop and an independent chain?

    If (when?!) C&P open their second store, does that make them different from a single indie?

  9. My interpretation of the word 'independent' is where the business shareholding is held privately.

    Hence the likes of Pan Bookshop, Foyles, James Daunt, Blackwell's would all be classified as "an independent" since shares in the parent company are not traded on the open market.

    For any business - even the smallest indie - to survive nowadays, there has to be implementation of best business practice ; the days of the cavalier swashbuckler are long gone...anyway, they were generally renegades playing with other's money.

  10. Robert is not like Ottakers - he is not a large chain and he does not discount. Any competition with Mr B will be on a level playing field.

    I anticipate most of the sales being drawn away from Waterstones rather than Mr B. Customers come to our shop despite huge competition - Waterstones Picadilly is a 20 min walk away! There is a discount shop at the end of Lower Marsh that often undercuts our prices.

    The charge that Robert is good at wasting other peoples money should be dropped. He operated Ely in the same way as always and it has worked. Face it - he is a great bookseller.

    One final point. If Robert does take a chunk of business away from Waterstones in Bath they may fall into difficulties. (I can hear you sniggering!) If that happened might we not see a situation where Bath had three indies and no chain bookseller of note?

    As I say - Topping and Co, GO GO GO.

    PS We never listened to "advice" and we are still here and loving every minute of it!

  11. Matthew

    Do you know or care how many independent booksellers try to make a living in the Bath area ?

    Bath is nowadays accepted as one of the more difficult places to have any bookshop.

    Waterstone's have prime position in Bath : trading books in the provinces is all about position, especially in up-market places like Bath.

    When Nic opened Mr' B's Emporium I felt that here was another wet behind the ears person going to learn the hard way about independent retail. Now he is going to go through a baptism of fire : I've got a shrewd suspicion that he will survive and eventually prosper, but no thanks to predatory competition from Topping.

    Every single business person to whom I have spoken on the subject does not expect Topping to prosper in his chosen locale : they know Bath and are aware what a challenging environment it is in which to trade.

    Topping will get what he deserves, which will very possibly be a "blooded nose".

  12. Clive

    I don't know Bath well. I'm afraid I'm very much one of those London boys for whom anywhere outside the M25 is rather exotic.

    But I am aware of Harry's shop (unlike Susan?) and also remember Secesion Books who closed in 2006. Harry was very helpful when we set up (did take some advice of course - we are not quite so daft as often appear from blog!)

    We will see who is right about Topping and Co in a couple of years time. I know a lot of people have tried and failed at independent bookselling in Bath but I think Robert is a real one off.

    If anyone can do it then it's him...

    Personally I find it inspiring that he has the guts to give it a try. Unlike the "business people" you speak of I do not enjoy watching anyone fail, especially when they work hard and with passion.

  13. Absolutely agree, Bennett called Waterstones 'faceless bean counters' and they still gave him Author of the Year in the Christmas promotion.

    In-house W staff are in uproar at the moment at the powers that be over their CEO decision to speak to the city with his findings and plan for the future before disclosing it with anyone underneath him, instead he marketed a leaflet and sent it to the branches, some of which still haven't received it.

    Many staff have complained to the point of thinking of staging a walkout because the majority of them found out about this on the news the morning they were going out to work. Job losses and branch closures and more focus on discount and mass market dross.

    What's your story?

  14. I'm amazed at this perverse criticism of Topping for opening in Bath when there's already another independent nearby. Susan Hill should remember that Nic Bottomley opened his shop within weeks of the closure of Secession Books around the corner. His plans must have been well under way before that closure was announced, so presumably he fully intended to compete with a neighbouring independent.

    That kind of sentimentality - or indeed Clive Keeble's daring, impressive use of the word arsehole - serves no useful function. We can only be pleased that two switched-on booksellers think there's something to do in Bath, and sit back to see what happens ....

  15. I quit Waterstones when they said I couldn't put Victor Pelevin on the table...

    I thought that was "dumbing down" but since then things have got dumber and dumber.

    Remember the Collins rep being furious with me for refusing to take the latest Archer. Nowadays you would be against the wall at Waterstones for daring such a thing.

    Any staff feeling down should read What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn - some brilliant observations of shop life, she used to work for HMV too.

  16. I quit Waterstone's because I got onto an MA course and wanted to drop down to 4 days a week. The manager said she only wanted full-timers dedicated to the company so she wouldn't let me.

    Got an interview with an indy the week after and got a 4 day a week job then and there. Thanks Mr Topping.