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New Waterstone's boss James Daunt faces big changes

By Catherine Wynne
Business reporter, BBC News

image captionJames Daunt's small independent chain has built up a following in London

Life is about to change radically for James Daunt.

Currently the owner of seven bookshops located in some of London's more genteel areas, Mr Daunt will soon become boss of the UK's largest and only surviving national book chain, Waterstone's.

A hands-on bookseller who likes to spend as much time as he can in the shops, he has been chosen by the company's new Russian owner for the role of managing director.

He told BBC News running a company with almost 300 branches would be "very different".

But he added: "I know how to run bookshops and believe the basic principles of bookselling are the same however many you have.

"There are three essential elements. You need really good books in them, it needs to be a really nice environment and you need really good people."

"I wouldn't be doing it unless I felt I could do it."

'Graceful skylights'

image captionDaunt Books has about 50 staff; Waterstone's employs 4,500

Mr Daunt opened his first shop in 1990 at the age of 26 after a few years in investment banking. Since then his small, independent chain has built a loyal following.

One website describes the "long, oak galleries and graceful skylights" of the Marylebone High Street branch, another says it is "divine" - not the sort of phrases usually associated with High Street chains.

Mr Daunt says each of his stores is individual and this is the key to their success.

"They are different one from the other. Marylebone is different to Hampstead, for example. It is a different community, a different feel and they provide the best possible bookshop for the people who use them.

"Can one do that up and down the land?" he asks. "One should aspire to do so.

"So do I think that the bookshop in Preston will be the same as in Hampstead? That seems unlikely. The important thing is that it is loved by the people of both places."

'Tough place'

Not only does Mr Daunt face running a national chain for the first time, he joins Waterstone's when retailers are under intense pressure.

He says the High Street is a tough place to be and is acutely aware another national chain, Borders, has had to close its doors.

What is more, less than 24 hours before the sale of Waterstone's was announced, online book giant Amazon announced sales of its e-books had tripled in the past year and it was now selling more e-books than printed books.

"Digital is important," he says. "[Waterstone's is] in the business of selling reading and I would hope that we would become the place of choice."

But it is an area Mr Daunt has little experience of and one he said he would be talking to the Waterstone's staff about when he takes up the job in a couple of week's time.

'No closures'

Waterstone's new owner, the investment company run by billionaire Alexander Mamut, paid struggling owner HMV £53m for the book chain.

Mr Daunt says Mr Mamut has not talked to him about the need to close any branches.

"I would hope that we wouldn't [have to close any shops]," he says. "But the reality is that shops change in any retail business."

He has not been asked to cut costs, either, Mr Daunt says. "He just said turn these into the best possible bookshops you can."

"It is important," Mr Daunt says of the task ahead. "Waterstone's is a national bookseller. For an enormous number of places it is the only bookshop.

"I really believe in bookshops. I am aware I am sounding pretentious and it is not an elitist sentiment. It is derived from a life embedded in selling books."

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