In case you are as yet uninitiated, I should explain that Daunt Books is the ‘boutique’ chain of the bookselling world – the Daylesford’s or the Matches of bookshops if you like – with branches only found in the prosperous and carefully chosen London neighbourhoods of Marylebone High Street, Fulham Road, Holland Park, Hampstead and Cheapside. It doesn’t take a genius, therefore, to work out that the business must rely heavily on a customer base that is not overly concerned by competitive pricing…
However, Daunt Books is far from complacent in what it does. Although much of each shop’s business is local, customers travel from far and wide, particularly to the Marylebone shop. They come to take advantage of the bookselling expertise and to savour an authentic, properly book’ish treat – like going to Booth Books, say, in Hay on Wye (but rather more convenient for most of us) – of a shop packed with quirky titles leaning towards travel and the literary, the special editions that publishers are increasingly producing as an antidote to the digital world, promotions that are genuinely handpicked and staff that are a cut above the rest. Daunt Books even has its own small publishing imprint, bringing both carefully selected new and out-of-print titles to life. It all seems a little bit too good to be true doesn’t it?
“If you believe in the future of books and bookshops, as we do,” Brett tells me, “You have to keep fitting in with what people want from a bookshop. Some see us just as a shop window and go off and buy the books on line, which is sad but you can’t stop it, but equally other people see us as a genuine place to treasure – as a cultural resource.”
I first encountered the Marylebone High Street shop back in the early 1990’s, and on picking my way through its glorious creakiness to discover the galleried atrium at the back, I felt that I had really stumbled upon something special. I also assumed, entirely wrongly, that this was a shop that must have been there for years. In fact the first of this new chain, the brain child of former financier James Daunt, had only opened in 1990, cleverly taking over the former, custom built Edwardian premises of the Antiquarian bookseller Francis Edwards, and thereby giving itself instant atmosphere and authenticity.
On visiting the shop for the first time in a while last week, I was reminded that Daunts shops are the sort of intelligent, carefully curated, event heavy bookshops that I think we all wish that we had on our doorsteps, but are sadly unlikely to. They are certainly places to treasure. Perfectly positioned, both geographically and figuratively, to draw in the punters – both big spending locals and otherwise – they maximise the very best of everything the book world has to offer in order to turn a healthy profit and create a fabulous place to experience books. They champion something altogether different to the brash, commercial pile ‘em high tactics of WH Smith and the evolving, patchy charms of Waterstones (tellingly now being run by James Daunt himself) – our only other remaining high street chains after the demise of Books Etc, Borders, Ottakars and others. I think of the independent regional bookshops that are struggling to survive and imagine they must only dream of such luxury – many like the Aldeburgh Bookshop in Suffolk and The Mainstreet Trading Company in the Scottish Borders do extremely well to try and create this environment in the sticks, many simply can’t.
Brett makes it clear that besides the benefits of their prosperous London locations, each store relies very heavily on its staff. Staff, he assures me, lead the way in deciding themselves what is promoted in each particular store, rather than taking orders from above. Word is that Daunts staff earnings are considerably higher than elsewhere on the high street, and I can believe it.
“We have really good, interested, involved booksellers who are freed up from the ordering process to look at the books, choose what goes on tables and so on,” he says. “Frankly, you only get good people doing this if they can follow their nose as far as books that they enjoy. It’s not unusual for us to put a book in the window and sell up to 200-300 copies a week. The Marylebone shop, particularly, can make a big difference to the sales of a title both in London and nationally with the knock on effect. We’ve been doing this a number of years now, and people trust our windows. If it’s not a book that’s already in the mainstream, we can, and have, started a snowball effect.”
He mentions the book Stoner by John Williams – first published in 1965 but only just recently becoming a phenomenon – modestly not claiming that Daunts started it all, “but we were the first shop to put a huge display in the window and this obviously had a big effect,” adding with enthusiasm, “we certainly don’t pay any attention to what publishers want us to do.”
One of his booksellers at the Marylebone Store, Tallulah Brown, who helps to handpicks titles for the store’s Gift Subscription service (from £148 a year) tells me, “I love the intricacies and peculiarities of the shop, how the books are laid out to encourage exploration and that it is so loved. A customer said to me the other day, ‘If I am poor, I eat less. I will always buy books because with books I am rich’.”
High quality events are a big thing at Daunts, they have a list of forthcoming talks that makes me really wish that I still lived in London, and 27th – 28th March the Marylebone shop will run its first festival (see www.dauntbooks.co.uk for details) featuring a terrific line up of both new and established authors and imaginative events. “We are trying to do more and more and this is a big step up for us,” Brett says, “we are lucky to have a wonderful built in venue in the atrium which can seat up to about 170 people.” He stresses that each of the shops has its own events programme and that each is a focal point for its own community.
Interestingly, just as I am leaving, Brett says to me that the Daunts world is very much dominated by women – its staff, its customers, those who come to events and even the authors who want to get involved with events are, in the main, female. He makes a point, I think, that opens up a whole line of consideration and interesting debate…
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