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Waterstones is one of the best-known names in bookselling, with branches, oh, about every forty yards on the country's high streets, and an online shop. Their meteroic rise has disguised the fact that the stores are pretty average really.
The layout and atmosphere
I might as well start on the most positive note - the layout is good, a lot more spacious than most bookstores, and it's never any bother to find the section of the store you're looking for. Even the more obscure sections are clearly marked, and thankfully the books themselves are laid out in a sensible way (are you listening Ottokars?). Also, all the stores I've been in have nice big couches to sit back and enjoy your book (or steal a quick read at one you can't afford). The lighting is just right, and there is little noise - in other words, the atmosphere is pure bookstore bliss. Interestingly though, the 'perfect' atmosphere sometimes makes the place feel dead - I often prefer the bustle of Borders.
Pretty good, but it all depends on the branch. The Braehead store, being in a shopping centre, has a disappointingly hit-and-miss selection, with some gems and some weird omissions. The Sauchiehall branch, however, with its four floors, has a very wide selection. The selection range is helped by the fact that Waterstones stubbornly sticks to books - no space is sacrificed on other things. This is good, since other stores are over-ambitious and try to do books and music, and fail on both counts. The bottom line though has to be that the selection is average in the high street scale: compare it to amazon.co.uk and it looks positively miniscule.
Ah, that's what we all came to see! Average again, I'm afraid. On bestsellers and new titles Waterstones is put to shame by Amazon again, and I've found that paperbacks are generally cheaper in other high street shops like Ottokars and Borders. Paperbacks in Waterstones are odd - they are often more expensive by about a pound, which looks small, but actually feels like a wee kick in the teeth. The weirder books are usually just at retailer's recommended prices: very poor. Mediocre on the whole.
Staff and service
Quite good, really. The staff have an informal uniform which adds to the cosy feeling of the store, and they are generally quite knowledgeable about the books. Aftersales is good too - I once had to return a book which had possibly the weirdest typesetting problems I've ever seen. I didn't have the receipt, since I'd bought it before going on holiday, but they gave me a replacement without fuss. Actually, staff and service is probably the one area where I'd put Waterstones at the top of the league, with Borders.
The cafe (Sauchiehall only)
Rubbish. Overcrowded and poor food and drink. Avoid. In the interests of fairness, I've left this out of my overall rating.
Waterstones looks good on the surface, with its huge pride in its own averageness. It has average prices, selection and ambience. It is instantly forgettable, and that's the problem - there is nothing offensive about the shop, but I'd never think of it as my first choice. It is beaten by at least one other bookstore in all categories (except possibly staff): Amazon beats it on choice, Amazon, Ottokars and Borders beat it on price, Borders has a better cafe and also a better atmosphere. Waterstones is fine and not bad at all, but it's not the best by a long shot. In a word: average. I recommend Borders and Amazon as my top two.
I totally agree with your comments regarding the "average" selection offered. As a crime fiction fan, I regularly scour the shelves of my local shop (Liverpool) for my favourite, but perhaps lesser known authors (eg Hazel Holt, Betty Rowlands, and others) but am invariably faced with a sea of titles by Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Sue Grafton et al. All great writers, and I've read all their books, but do Waterstones have to stock QUITE so many copies of the same titles? Fewer of these would mean more room for other authors. On the plus side, Waterstones is very good at ordering titles, and prompt, but if you've not seen a book on the shelf - how do you know it exists?
lagray 05.01.2002 00:17
I liked your writing style and layout - great op, cheers, LAx