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Why two fish and a string quartet are selling books on Islington Green

PUBLISHED: 09:30 20 February 2016

Shop manager Martin Koerner at the Waterstones at Islington Green

Shop manager Martin Koerner at the Waterstones at Islington Green

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Islington Green’s newest bookshop manager Martin Koerner tells the Gazette how he is helping his store turn over a new leaf after a dark decade for the printed page.

A board outside Waterstones shows a list of local events coming up at the store in Islington GreenA board outside Waterstones shows a list of local events coming up at the store in Islington Green

It’s Saturday afternoon, and customers are rifling through the latest book releases laid out on tables at Waterstone’s in Islington Green.

Next to the till is a board detailing upcoming events – including a Harry Potter “book night” and a talk by a local author.

The Gazette is here to talk to the shop’s new manager Martin Koerner about his plans for the shop’s future. But just five years ago, with Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader still in its first flush of success, it wasn’t clear whether Waterstone’s had a future at all.

Panicked booksellers slashed prices as they tried and failed to compete with supermarkets. But just as it looked like the chain would go under, a pair of new faces at the top helped reverse its fortunes.

Shop assistant Allan Newton sells a book to a customer at the Waterstones at Islington GreenShop assistant Allan Newton sells a book to a customer at the Waterstones at Islington Green

“What [new managing director James Daunt] has done isn’t exactly radical,” Martin tells the Gazette. “It’s hugely sensible – things like putting the staff at the front of the shop and making sure their knowledge is shared with customers.”

According to Martin, who lives just up the road in Highbury Corner, the secret to a bookshop’s success is experience. “It’s having booksellers who know what they’re talking about,” he says. “They can recommend books in a way an algorithm can’t.”

His aim now, he says, is to turn the Islington branch into a “cultural hub” for Islington, with events ranging from readings to recitals. To mark the recent release of Julian Barnes’ new novel, which is about composer Dmitri Shostakovich, he hired a string quartet to play in the shop all morning.

“It cost more than I made,” he admits, “but it’s about adding to the experience of the bookshop as a cultural hub.”

The Waterstones store at Islington GreenThe Waterstones store at Islington Green

In the meantime, Martin – who’s worked for Waterstone’s in one capacity or another for 16 years – has expanded the cookery section and doubled the size of the music, film and TV shelves.

“Islington is such an arty place that I want the bookshop to be really strong in those areas,” he explains. “Hopefully, we’ll get some local chefs – we’re hoping to persuade Carluccio and Ottolenghi – to come and do demonstrations over the next few months. And why not start having wine or cheese tastings?”

He’s also hoping to get more local authors to hold events at the branch and is especially keen to have more children visiting the shop. “Child literacy is so important,” he says. “That’s when you get hooked. So we want to make this an exciting, fun place and get kids reading.”

When he took up the job a month ago, he found two rather sad-looking fish swimming around a dirty tank. After cleaning it up, he held a competition for local youngsters to name the fish; the winning entries were “Captain Tomato” and “Rufus Trifle Avalanche”.

Half-term, meanwhile, has seen writing competitions, talks, readings and a book signing for youngsters.

“What I want to do across the board is to entertain everyone,” says Martin, “and offer that little bit extra that you can’t possibly get from Amazon and Kindle.”

Our interview is cut short when a sales assistant tells him a rep from the British Film Institute is here to talk about selling films in the shop. Martin’s eyes light up.

But what about books – will we still be reading paperbacks and hardbacks in 20 years?

Martin’s convinced they, too, have a bright future.

“It’s genuinely an exciting time,” he says. “Waterstone’s is in the black for the first time in years. More and more people are coming in to choose books.”

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