Across the desk from me was Simon Hornby, chairman of WH Smith. I looked at him and he looked at me. He had flown over to New York from London for one of his holidays — which he had just got under way by firing me.
The irony was that it was he who’d asked me to go out two years earlier to work on plans for a foray by WH Smith into the U.S. market. I’d had reservations about it from the start. But I’d accepted the invitation and gone, and now here we were.
Hornby looked as if he was feeling cheap and embarrassed, and no doubt he was. He coloured, muttered something about transition arrangements and set off hastily for the door. He opened it, and then turned back.
‘We don’t really mind what you do now,’ he said, sounding rather braver with the door handle in his grasp. ‘Though we wouldn’t want you to go straight out and open a load of bookshops in competition with us. That we would stop. We’d stop that.’
Cut above: Tim helps Ivana Trump open a Waterstones branch in Harrods in 1992
It was all the challenge I needed. I felt angry, but also wildly exhilarated. After dreaming for more than 20 years about opening my own chain of booksellers, the moment had finally come.
I’d seen enough from my time at WH Smith to know the flaws and gaps in what they were doing. I’d seen their decision to pull back on their bookselling activity to make room for other, unrelated products: videos, music, bottom-of-the-market sandwiches, snacks, chocolate bars, fizzy drinks, cheap plastic toys.
I knew there was a niche, a slot, a tantalising gap in the market: a place where books, and the people who read them, and who wrote them, came first. A place for magic to be made. Heaven knows where the money was coming from. But come it would.
I bought a dormant company off the shelf, renamed it Waterstones and put into it every single penny I had: £6,000 in redundancy money — in 1982 the equivalent to, say, £18,000 today — and £15,000 I’d borrowed from my father-in-law.
On the advice of friends in the know I went to see a bright young Barclays manager in Cranleigh, Surrey, about the possibility of a small business loan. To him I made the most colourfully impassioned presentation of my vision: heavily-stocked, open-all-hours book stores where people could browse at leisure — not buying anything if they chose not to — and be served by specialist staff in a friendly, relaxed environment.
Within ten years, I told him, Waterstones would be the biggest bookselling chain in the world outside the U.S. (which, as it turned out, proved to be exactly the case). All I needed was a little temporary help from him in the form of a £100,000 loan.
How very interesting, he said, adding that he would be in touch. He never was.
Somebody else suggested I went to a certain NatWest manager in Covent Garden, London, and once again I made my impassioned presentation. When I had finished there was dead silence while the bank manager stared at me for a long time.
Eventually he told me that I was either a madman or a genius — he couldn’t work out which. But he didn’t mind either way as he was retiring on Tuesday, so I could have the money.
With the first tranche of funding in place and four expert staff recruited, we were ready to go. But there was now another unexpected problem to overcome: a number of major publishers refused to supply us, fearing that because of me they would suffer reprisals from WH Smith. I still feel resentment at the memory of that, and remember the stress of wondering whether I would ever get my first store off the ground.
But, again, help was at hand. Penguin and Oxford University Press, both key publishers for Waterstones, led the way in getting behind us. Brave souls. One by one other publishers (but not, for a long time, all of them) crept in, too, and our shelves were finally stocked.
So . . . the dawning of our very first day. The seven of us — me, plus the four specialists I’d recruited from the prestigious Piccadilly book store Hatchards, along with two other enthusiastic young graduates — flung open the doors of our new shop in Old Brompton Road, Kensington, not far from Harrods.
Shortly after nine o’clock the telephone rang. Dane Howell, one of those marvellous new recruits, picked up the receiver.
‘Waterstones?’ he purred into it.
Three marriages, a mental breakdown and a VERY lucrative victory over a bitter rival. Concluding the rollicking, page-turning memoir of Britain’s biggest book tycoon
Ye gods, I thought. He has just said Waterstones. Waterstones! I’ve done it — it’s real! The magic has actually happened!
This was more than a little premature, given the bumps and terrors that lay ahead. But at that moment I felt nothing but an immense sense of achievement — a sense that I had finally found happiness and pride, and a resolution to my life.
A few minutes later a man bustled in, walked straight over to the reference section, pulled out a copy of the Koran, and took it up to the till. A surprising start to our life.
We closed the shop at 10pm I let the staff out, then emptied our solitary till, extracted its tray, and carried it upstairs to the safe. The safe wouldn’t open. I tried the password numerals again, and still it wouldn’t open.
It was too late to call the people who had installed it, so I stuffed the money into a Waterstones bag and made for the Underground station. I fell asleep on the train, then woke up a few minutes later at my stop and jumped out.
I jumped out rather too hastily, as it happened. A friend rang me in the morning to ask how the first day had gone.
‘Good news and bad news,’ I said.
‘What’s the good news?’
‘We took over £1,000,’ I said.
‘That’s wonderful! Well done! So what’s the bad news, then?’
‘I left it on the train . . . ’
It is my suspicion that most entrepreneurs are driven by an inability to forgive or forget. As I explained on Saturday, I have no doubt that was the case with me. Possibly the main driver of my whole life so far had been the beyond-painful failure of my relationship with my father. It served to generate an energy in the birth of Waterstones that was just a little insane. And an insane, disruptive foe is tough for corporate rivals to measure up to — as events were to prove.
I wish my father had lived long enough to see Waterstones brought to life. But to my regret he had died five or six years beforehand — around ten years after my much-loved mother. Shortly before his death, however, I’d had a surprising call from him, suggesting that we meet that day for a picnic.
I hadn’t seen him for some years, and I don’t think he had telephoned me before ever — and I mean ever — except for a few times in the final years of his life when he had run out of money and needed from me what he called ‘a small loan’.
I should mention in passing that none of these loans was ever repaid. And that when my father died I found that I, alone, of his three children had been left out of his will.
But the call on this occasion was not a request for money. It seemed to be, and I am sure it was, a reaching out to me. An attempt to build something between us at last. So we had the picnic, me with my then wife Claire and our two baby daughters, he with his pleasant second wife, an Australian widow.
We sat beside each other on the rug. In time, Claire took the children off to play. My father and I talked. Yes — talked. And — yes — he was trying to reach out to me. He really was. And I to him.
That was the last time I saw him alive. He couldn’t have known that he was so near to the day of his death. The aneurism that killed him instantaneously just a very few days later could not have been foretold. After I’d heard the news I sat on a chair beside the mortuary slab and gazed at my father. The covering lay loose on his body, and I leant across him to straighten it.
It may seem uncomfortably offhand for me to say this, but the truth was that he had never loved me, and I had never loved him. I would have liked to have loved my father, and perhaps he would have liked to have loved me, too, his son. Who knows?
I took my father’s hand, and held it for a moment. But it felt wrong, and contrived, and I didn’t welcome the intimacy of it, so I let the hand go, and just stared at him.
He was dead. He was gone. I was free of him.
MY father had for some years lived and worked in India, so perhaps it was not surprising that in my early 20s I decided to go there myself. I had always wanted to travel and, with no other clear plan in mind, I hoped it would be an adventure.
It was during my time there that I got married for the first time. We were extremely young: I was only 23 and Tricia, my wife, had just turned 20. She had come out from England to join me, and we had three perfect children together, all in quite rapid succession.
Tricia was delightful, but in just a few years we broke up, and it is best for all of us if I keep the statement as plain and unvarnished as that.
Four years after we broke up, I married again. Claire was 25 and she, too, was delightful. Again, we had three perfect children. Again, in time, we broke up. And, again, it is best for all of us if I keep the statement as plain and unvarnished as that.
Unconnected with all this — or was it? — a year or so into the period between the two marriages I’d had the biggest depressive breakdown of all time — or so it seemed to me. It happened quite suddenly, and I have no recollection as to what the trigger of it was, or if indeed there was one.
I just know that I felt as though I was attempting to lift myself out of a dark, dark melancholy that had served to wholly flatten me.
Tim Waterstone’s daughter Daisy in TV’s The Durrells
So much so that I got to the point where I was almost incapable of speaking, or indeed even of physically moving. Quite literally that. You have to have experienced that condition to know the lack of exaggeration in that statement of mine. But I was fortunate. Most generously, I was quietly released for a period from my desk by my then employer, Allied Breweries, to give me time to recover — a kindness which was rare, perhaps even unthinkable, in the corporate world of those days.
I was eventually rescued, somewhat bizarrely, by my dentist. Trying to rebuild a discipline, a structure to my life, as a route through my problems, I went one day for a routine dental check-up that had been scheduled many weeks before.
As the dentist talked to me he began to look puzzled. He gazed at me thoughtfully, his hand on my shoulder. He then went to his phone and called a doctor who had a practice in the same building.
I cannot recall what was said. What I do remember, though, was the opinion expressed most strongly by both of them that I needed an immediate professional assessment. A car was arranged to take me straight to a hospital.
An hour or so later, there I was at the Maudsley, in South London, one of Britain’s foremost psychiatric hospitals, where I was to remain for the next five or six days.
The majority of that time I must have been under some form of sedation. I remember some things, however. I remember a particularly kind West Indian nurse. I remember a consultant: his quiet, persuasive voice, and the clarity of his assessment.
I remember sitting in a day room, and the squalid, rank odour of spent cigarettes and full ashtrays and furniture polish. I remember wanting to go home.
I recall clearly, too, asking to see the consultant once more, and saying that I felt much stronger and that I wanted to go. I remember that he tried to dissuade me, almost to the point of legally enforceable insistence, but then gave way.
He gave me some drugs to tide me over for a day or two, and a prescription. He told me that it was too soon, much too soon, and that I would be back, he was certain of it. But he wished me very well.
In a couple of weeks I threw the prescription drugs away. And as it turned out he was wrong. I was never back at the Maudsley, nor anywhere near being back.
Never again in my life did I experience that step over the line into the black pit of a breakdown of mental facility. There were times ahead of melancholy and gloom —of course there were — but they were of an entirely different order.
I was very fortunate to come out of that period as decisively and as quickly as I did. But I remember still what it felt like and I know how lucky I have been in my escape from a recurrence.
SO to my final years of working, which have threaded their way through in a most rewarding fashion. And at the end of these years is the pleasure — which is for me beyond description — of seeing Waterstones, after a few bumps along the way, doing once more what it so superbly does best.
The WH Smith boardroom joke as to betting which month we would go belly up must have palled for them a little when a few years later, in the summer of 1990, they asked us if they could invest in our business, initially with a minority stake, but with the right to buy us out completely after a further three years.
The joke around the table was that the company’s exit price of £47 million (or about £102 million in today’s money) had been boosted by one million pounds at the last moment by the fact that they had fired me in 1981. So why did we agree to WH Smith acquiring us? The offer had come out of the blue, and was set, cleverly, at a price which represented such a high reward for our shareholders, many of whom were personal friends.
And one should say that there was also the general sense of a wind of change ahead. The company was now of a size where to preserve its highly unorthodox, if highly successful, operational style was going to be difficult.
A valuation of the company at this level was not going to come again soon.
There followed, sadly, a bitter and most unpleasant period in my life as I watched Waterstones quite simply implode after a programme of destruction under various new owners. Everywhere there were empty shelves, increasingly shabby interiors, a puzzled and dismayed public, and staff morale that was utterly destroyed.
These days, however, the company is newly in the safe hands of Elliott Advisors, the UK arm of the New York activist hedge fund Elliott Management — very, very smart people. Ambitious and single-minded in pursuit of cash generation they may be, but they are buying at a time when Waterstones’ fortunes and standing in the book market are again so bright. Why risk that?
I do firmly believe that without us the nation’s cultural health would not have been the same. And I am very proud of that.
There is in those years, above all else, something I leave to mention until the very last, and I am going to express it very simply: my immense good fortune in meeting Rosie Alison, and marrying her, and being with her so wonderfully for so many years. That, to put it mildly, above all else.
Rosie is with me in a dream I’ve been having in the past few months, which is persistent, and recurrent — and it’s painful. It seems to be rooted deeply in my subconscious.
I know what it means, without going through the process of a therapist telling me.
In fact, I don’t want a therapist to tell me. This is the dream: I am in a party of people deep in the English countryside, and we are on a hiking trip over sunlit summer meadows. With me are Rosie and Daisy, my youngest daughter, who is 23 [and plays Gerald Durrell’s sister Margo in TV drama The Durrells].
All the others are friendly strangers, people kind enough to laughingly check with me before we set off as to whether I have a hat to wear, and a walking stick, as I am by far the oldest in the group.
We set off, and soon the others start to draw away from me, as with my ankle and hip problems from recent falls I cannot keep pace — nor am I trying to do so. I like watching them all stride away down into the meadows ahead.
And I can see over to the right, on the other side of the hill, a couple of hundred yards from me, Rosie and Daisy walking together, side by side, talking and happy together.
Soon the main body is too far ahead of me and out of my sight, but I can still see Rosie and Daisy. In time, even they are out of sight, and I worry, but I can see a little town deep down in the valley ahead, and feel sure this must be where they are bound.
Entering the town I see that there is a railway station, and make for that, thinking that they might be waiting for me there. As I approach the station I see a train waiting at the platform about to depart. I am limping quite heavily by this point, but make my way to it as fast as I can, and I can see Daisy’s face pressed against a window, anxiously, desperately mouthing something to me, Rosie sitting in a carriage seat beyond her.
Then the train starts, and draws away, and Daisy is looking back at me, still intent, still anxious, still mouthing some words at me, and they’ve drawn away, and gone, and that is where the dream ends.
So, yes, I do know exactly what that recurrent dream of mine means. And perhaps no more than a dozen or so other people know — I mean fully, really know — as well. They know, but I am not going to expand on it here. It’s not so bad. Life has to be lived, and I have lived mine. In the final reckoning, my life, as with all of us, will be defined, good or bad, by the choices I have made.
And despite the train wreckage of some periods and some aspects of my life, on the whole I know I’ve done what I could. On the whole, I’ve done my best.
‘I ’ave a go, ladies,’ says Archie Rice in John Osborne’s The Entertainer. ‘I do. I ’ave a go.’
Well, that’s a good enough claim for me — and for anyone, really. So let me close this account there. Me too, Archie Rice, I say. Me too. I’ve ’ad a go.
- Extracted from The Face Pressed Against A Window by Tim Waterstone, to be published by Atlantic Books on February 7 at £17.99. © Tim Waterstone 2019. To buy a copy for £14.39 (20 per cent discount), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640. Offer valid until February 2, 2019. P&P is free on orders over £15. Spend £30 on books and get FREE premium delivery.