Waterstone’s haven’t had a very good year. On 4 January, the first working day of the new millennium, Ben Rogers wrote in the Guardian that he was ‘surprised to wander into the philosophy section’ of their Gower Street store: not very surprising behaviour for a philosopher, you might think, except that he discovered ‘someone’ had ‘divided the whole of post-medieval Western philosophy into two classes, continental and Anglo-American’, a distinction Bernard Williams once compared to dividing cars into either ‘left-hand-drive’ or ‘made in Japan’. It wasn’t like that in the days when Ray Monk ran the philosophy section of Waterstone’s on the Charing Cross Road. At the time, Monk was also writing his Life of Wittgenstein; these days he doesn’t need to work in a bookshop. Not so Robert Topping, for 12 years the manager of Waterstone’s in Manchester, who was sacked in June for selling too diverse a range of books. Will Self took up the cause to have him reinstated, but at the time of writing, the manager of the shop in question is called Andy Rossiter. Now Waterstone’s have been criticised for trying to force small publishers into selling all their titles to the chain at a discount of 50 per cent. Coming under fire at a meeting of the Independent Publishers Guild, David Kneale, the managing director of Waterstone’s, reminded delegates that ‘we have shareholders and have to make a profit.’ He changed tack later, insisting that his first responsibility was to his staff (that wouldn’t include Robert Topping, of course). Waterstone’s is feeling pinched partly, as everyone knows, because of competition from equally pinched online booksellers. But squeezing small publishers isn’t their only tactic; there also seems to be a move underway, in a bizarre Post-Modern inversion, to turn bookshops into virtual websites: visitors to each shop fall into one of two groups – left-hand-drive Toyotas cruise into view, but never mind – ‘searchers’ (47 per cent) and ‘browsers’ (53 per cent), in the same way that surfers (on the net) might be categorised.
Another Post-Modern inversion to do with virtual reality is set on its head by the TV programme Attachments, of which the tie-in book, On the Edge, has recently been published, first online and then in paperback ten days later (BBC, £6.99). Attachments, the first series of which ended last month, is concerned with an Internet magazine which it’s actually (virtually?) possible to visit, at www.seethru.co.uk – to see what’s going on in front of the scenes, as it were. You can even send e-mails to the characters who ‘work’ on the site. No wonder people get confused about what’s really real and what’s not.
The real and the virtual encounter each other in bookshops that put their cookery titles – which could include anything from The Cambridge World History of Food (Cambridge, £95) to the World Wrestling Federation’s recipe book, Can You Take the Heat? (HarperCollins, £14.99) – near the cafe, under the implied general designation ‘food’. Perhaps this prime position accounts for some of the mouth-watering success of Jamie Oliver. Penguin recently held a party to celebrate sales of The Naked Chef and The Return of the Naked Chef passing (between them) the two million mark. At the party, the cheeky chappy’s mother risked deflating the soufflé by saying: ‘When he was at school I tried to stop him speaking in that awful estuary accent, but it’s too late now for it to change.’ It makes you wonder whether the Prime Minister’s mother ever felt the same way, though it must be safe to say that such concerns never troubled the parents of Oliver’s rival in the Harry-Potter-of-the-kitchen stakes, that latter-day prose Patmore, Nigella Lawson.