'Good heavens ...just L-O-O-K at Waterstone's ' I exclaimed to Bookhound yesterday as we stepped out of Michael Caines's cafe in the Royal Clarence Hotel, and onto Cathedral Green in Exeter. We'd just had a light liquid lunch, and had it been anything stronger than the delicious vegetable soup I might have thought I was hallucinating.
Now I don't want to cast aspersions on the literary enthusiasms of the residents of Exeter, but it is very unusual... if not unheard of in living memory, for us to stumble across a queue to get into Waterstone's that snakes right along the road and curves round as far as the west front of the Cathedral.
Now the UK's last remaining high street bookshop chain, and my book-buying paradise back in the 1980s, with the black shelves (how I loved them and how I have hated the white make-over) that made the books look as distinguished as they were. An oasis for me because Waterstone's was the one-stop-shop to go to for an eclectic and unusual selection of reading.
Those felt like the days when Waterstone's seemed 'bothered' about its customers, not bothered by them, and of course the Indies were up in arms about the competition little knowing what was on the horizon, and who'd have thought so many of us would now be rooting for this national institution to survive. I've done my bit for them over the years, in fact you know it's me you have to thank for supporting the Loyalty Card pilot scheme in the Plymouth store so assiduously that it was probably rolled out nationally way ahead of schedule.
The Waterstone's salvation buy-out this year has been with Russian money, but the captain charged with turning the shop around is James Daunt, he of Daunt's bookshops in London. If I confess anew that I now have some of my own shelves nicely organised according to country of author, that should tell you how influenced I am by all things Daunts, which does likewise (they thought of it before I did.) I go out of my way to spend an hour and some money at 83 Marylebone High Street whenever I am in London, but also for an hour in Foyles and the Waterstone's flagship store in Piccadilly.
So back to Waterstone's in Exeter and it was obvious the two very large bouncers on the door, to say nothing of the law of the queue, were not going to let me in the back way, so I wandered around to the front entrance on the High Street for my customary browse and to see what all the fuss was about.
In fact it was .... er ...er James Corden doing a book signing.
If you are asking James Who, it's all here and I do enjoy his humour. He's starring in a play that is getting rave reviews and is on in Plymouth at the moment and we should have booked tickets. So I am not in any way denigrating his presence, or everyone's rather hysterical reaction to it, because let's be frank, if it had been say Sebastian Barry I'd have been the same.
Anyway, I kid you not people of all ages were ecstatic, apart from one elderly couple who were far from, and could not understand why a book signing by someone they had never heard of meant half the shop had to be shut off and they couldn't get to the books they wanted.
I had actually been planning to buy Meg Rosoff's There is No Dog, and would have paid full whack too... but the shop was 'cordoned' off (sorry couldn't resist) .
'Oh my God, did you see the way James smiled at me??'
'I can't believe I have been in the same room as James Corden....this is amazing. James Corden in Exeter, that is fantastic'
'Did he give you a sweet....no? Oh he gave me a sweet...'
And it wasn't pretty to see the woman who dashed in the front door thinking she could walk through only to be told she would have to go around to the back door, and in any case the signing queue was now closed because James Corden had to be somewhere else by next Easter. I'd not seen someone have a nervous breakdown in a bookshop lately, she'll probably need counselling.
Hands up, I've just finished On Canaan's Side, I'd be the same about Sebastian Barry, really I would, it's all relative.
So the shop was busy and everyone was clutching cuddly James Corden's book to their bosom except me, but I did manage to have a good look around, because I am interested to see how the new Waterstone's will shape up and will I notice any changes. Might it even start to look and feel like a 21st century version of the bookshop I remember that launched me on a wealth of new and exciting reading trails back in the 1980s, and at a time when I desperately needed them after those years of having babies seemed to have turned my brain to mush.
It's early days but the message must be filtering down from on high because I can see immediately it's starting to look more like a bookshop again and much less like a bazaar.
The 3 for 2 tables have gone for a start, and the pesky stickers, what a blessed relief that is.
Gone is the temptation to buy one book I may want and two I don't, and that I know are only there because publishers have paid for them to be so.... and I don't blame them, they had little choice. I'd like to believe that all publisher payments of this kind have vanished from the Waterstone's coffers, but I'm not sure.
So we have a return to good old book egalitarianism, everything in its proper place on the shelf and the tables are back to the old ways... selections of books...literary fiction, books in translation, short stories...
I did a dovegreyreader shelf in the Plymouth store for a while, it was great fun to do but it fizzled, probably because my choices looked a little too esoteric next to the 3 for 2s. It took a lot of time and thought too and for no payment, so I couldn't sustain that when there is the gas bill to be paid.
But there were some special displays in the Exeter store that really warmed the cockles...
Little Toller Books looking perfect...
A William Maxwell shelf, can you believe that, having barely found a William Maxwell book in the shop before now they have all of them, and with the bookseller notes too.
A really stunning table by the door featuring amongst others a selection of these books on the painting of Eric Ravilious....want...all.
And prominence given to the classics as never before, though personally I think I like to see them mixed in with everything else rather than having someone define the canon for me (what do you think?) but mustn't grumble, the range was extensive and far greater than anything I have seen in Waterstones for a long time. Stock lists seem to be widening and the chances are you could now find a much lesser known classic on the shelves...Theodor Fontane for example, and not just Effie Briest, though I'm reminded it's time I read that.
And a conversation between two fresh-faced looking students overheard next to those very shelves which I was surreptitiously stroking (the books not the students)...
'Oh God, we haven't got to read this Hardy rubbish have we??
'This is going to be f ***** terrible, look at these books, all these people are so old.'
'Well I've always just watched the film the night before an exam and passed ...'
So a way to go, but setting that little exchange aside, if you frequent the stores is anyone else noticing Waterstone's improvements lately??
We could conduct a national audit, I know I shall certainly be keeping an eye on them and with my fingers crossed.