Borders goes up in Smoke

Smoke magazine founder Matt Haynes on the imminent demise of Borders and Books Etc:

Smoke wouldn’t exist today if Malcolm Hopkins, who was in charge of periodicals at Borders’ Oxford Street store when we began, hadn’t thought the magazine – and dozens like it – worth supporting. Whenever a new issue came out, we’d take him 350 copies on the 159 bus, and he’d position them subversively among the Grazias and Worlds of Dogs. But, when we breezed in with issue #10, we found no Hopkins, just a surly goth skulking in Esoterica. “He’s gone,” she said. “Gone?” we said. “Why?” “Dunno. Probably didn’t like the uniform.” Half of issue #10 came back as returns. Or the covers did.

Borders wasn’t perfect – in fact, some of its US former parent firm’s employment practices were downright evil. But, without any tradition of independent non-second hand book retailing in this part of south-east London (the nearest independent that I know of is Sydenham’s Kirkdale Bookshop), it’s been the chains or nothing.

So Books Etc in Canary Wharf snagged me very early on, when the Wharf’s shopping centre was a ghost town at weekends, by giving me their poster for the film version of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting for nothing when I asked if they had any for sale. So I stuck with them.

And while Books Etc and Borders were stocking small-scale magazines like Smoke, giving them a leg up and valuable shelf-space. I personally discovered that Waterstones couldn’t care less when I strolled into their Trafalgar Square branch one evening and asked if they stocked it. “We don’t sell magazines,” murmured a surly bloke behind the counter, oblivious to the pile of Time Outs under his nose. I gave Waterstones a swerve for years after, and still try to avoid it.

But the writing was on the wall when Waterstones took over the two Canary Wharf branches of Books Etc a year or so ago, not so long after it’d taken over Ottakar’s in Greenwich, meaning I’ve no choice in local bookshops any more. The closure of the flagship Oxford Street Borders this summer indicated that the game was up. At least a resurgent Foyles is keeping some kind of quirky bookselling going in London. Despite the sins of its US parent, Borders was one American import to London that actually will be missed.


  1. I too used to avoid Waterstones – I still do – save for the Greenwich one, which has just got a really brilliant assistant manager – who gives a damn – I think you’ll find Smoke in there for starters – and he’s gone out of his way to find every book in print about Greenwich that he can.

    I don’t like chains any more than anyone else – but if the individual managers are given some autonomy they can bring their particular branch to some sort of local feel. They’ll never replace proper independents – but I for one will not be knocking the work that one guy in Waterstones is doing.

  2. For me the loss of Ottakar’s in Greenwich was the worst-although the staff in the Greenwich store are great and take the time to help where they can. We also lost the little bookshop in Greenwich market and in Blackheath. I hate buying books on the internet so it seems that all we’re left with is the big chains. A sorry state of affairs.

  3. I live in an area which has two independently-run bookshops, but they’re a bit North London stuck-up, in that they are OK, but seem run purely for middle-aged academics. They don’t sell any small magazines, either. Boo.

  4. Wood Green used to have a big, fairly successful Waterstone’s (previously an Ottakar’s), but management shut it down to sell the lease to H&M, giving the staff nine days’ notice.

    Two of the managers decided they quite liked selling books in Wood Green, and took their redundancy rather than relocating to another branch. And they took that money, and started a blog, and gathered some friends to help choose a name and paint walls and build shelves, and opened their own bookshop.

    And it’s lovely. And one of what seems to be a growing number of indie bookshops in London. Londonist’s map doesn’t seem to show any in the south-east yet, but hopefully it’s only a matter of time.

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