You know those healthporn documentaries that try to shock us with the fact that obese people are, actually, malnourished? Really? All those 12 inch meatball subs, and aqualungs of Pringles don’t add up to a healthy diet? You do surprise us Jeremy Vine. Now roll Panorama credits.

Well, Liverpool ONE’s in danger of becoming its mall equivalent. All those lovely shops. And nowhere to buy the New Yorker.

We know. It’s hardly up there with war, pestilence and famine – but, come on. Enough of the couture-to-go, what happened to the culture in this brave new city centre?

SevenStreets has spent a fruitless – yet illuminating – couple of hours on the phone to two Press Officers. These people get paid for what they do. But, ultimately, they don’t say anything…

Here’s the sorry story…

The best shop in Liverpool ONE? That’s a tough call. There are many. The worst? Hands up who’s thinking WH Smith-shaped thoughts right now?

Liverpool’s Church Street branch used to be a flagship: rows of niche periodicals, towers of board games, enough watercolour kits to paint a sinking ship…you remember it well, as we do.

Its replacement? A kiosk with flooring usually saved for NHS geriatric ward bathrooms – a rat-run of colliding, confusing and downright dangerous gondolas, shelves and promotional bins. Full of tat.  Walk in there and it’s like you’re the ball-bearing in a labyrinth game: will you successfully navigate a path to the check-out without knocking over a leaning tower of Ricky Tomlinson books?

Actually, no, you won’t. Because, since WH Smith is now smaller than even Chester’s (in fact it’s smaller than Crewe’s) branch, it simply doesn’t stock the same selection of magazines the old store carried. We’ve a horrible feeling this store was ear-marked for platform two of Llandudno Junction station, but by some horrible clerical error landed in the heart of one of the UK’s biggest and busiest cities.

Alone amongst the shuffle-round of city centre shops, the move to Liverpool ONE was a definite demotion for WH Smiths. Can you imagine how the staff felt?

“Hey, do you want the good news, or the bad news…” the manager must have said. “The good news is we’re moving to Liverpool ONE….”

So you’ll just keep walking to Waterstones – where they’ve a great selection of art and culture magazines on their ground floor. You’ll buy one there, and have a nice coffee upstairs, while you’re chuckling away at some WASPish short story in a US periodical.

But no. Now you can’t do it because, well, because downstairs at Waterstones has been turned into a fancy wrapping paper shop. And it’s called Paperchase…

“What happened to your magazines section, is it upstairs?” SevenStreets asked the sales assistant.

“No, it’s gone. We had to get rid of them to make way for Paperchase,” she says.

“But that’s terrible.”

“I know. We’ve had a lot of complaints.”

Cut to phone call to Fiona Allen, Press Officer at Waterstones.

“What’s happened? You’ve got rid of the magazines and periodicals in Liverpool ONE to make way for fancy wrapping paper,” we tell her.

“No,” she says, “this has nothing to do with Paperchase expanding. We think it’s important that every store offers a balanced selection, and one that our customers tell us they want. We’re just reflecting that.”

“But all wrapping paper, and no magazines? That’s not balanced,” we say.

“Like any good retailer, we have to take a holistic approach. We’re all about serving the customer. In some stores, we’re increasing the magazines we sell,” Allen says.

“But have you asked Liverpool customers? We know plenty who feel short changed by this,” we say, “Can we get a quote from the manager at the store?”

“No,” Fiona says. On both counts. They’ve not asked the customers directly. And all press enquiries must go through her. “But, I must repeat – this has nothing to do with us needing extra space for Paperchase.”

We try to tell Fiona about the long tail. About building audiences at the margins. About how thin magazines are. They really don’t take up too much space at all – why not just round up the best sellers into a corner?

“We’ll always revisit this if we get feedback saying our customers miss the magazines,” she promises. We wrote it down. We’ll call her back.

We revisit the store the next day. A young chap is serving.

“Why aren’t you selling magazines any more? You’re the only place in the centre that sold decent mags.”

“I know,” he says, looking so crestfallen we almost want to send him a Get Well Soon card. It would be so easy to do. We’re surrounded by 14,000 of them, “We had to make room for Paperchase,” he says.

We return home. And we call up WH Smiths’ Group Communications Executive, Katie Prout.

“Why is your shop so rubbish?” we ask (we’ve seen Panorama. We know how to duke these people out.)

“Although smaller in size the resited WHSmith store still sells an extensive range of magazines, books, stationery and cards, as well as having the full range of Post Office services on offer,” the Group Communications Executive says.

“But you don’t sell nearly as many specialist or niche magazines. It’s just not good enough – you sell better stuff in Chester. And Crewe,” we half-cry.

“The range reflects the products which are most popular with our customers, and our staff are always happy to order any products which are not available in the store.”

They’re not. We tried. We asked the manager if we could order a magazine. He said no. He said this while he was erecting a pile of Katie Price books.

We tell Katie that it’s not just us who miss the old WH Smiths. We’ve had comments on our site, we’ve spoken to our mates. We know the way the wind’s blowing – and we’re here to help. We tell her the new shop is well-nigh impossible for disabled or sight impaired customers to enjoy. Katie doesn’t comment.

There are bigger sites in Liverpool ONE. Heck, even Apple are rumoured to be eyeing up a bigger store up the road (oh, shit, that’s a secret. Oops). Why don’t they just do us all a service and move?

“But we  believe that the location, near to bus stops for many of the city’s main bus routes, adds further convenience to customers shopping in WH Smith or requiring the services of the city’s main Post Office,” Katie says, refusing to tackle the thrust of our argument at all.

“We regularly serve 11,000 customers each week in our Liverpool store and we firmly believe that we continue to offer a competitive range of products in our Liverpool store. And I’ve spoken to the managers, and if you’re prepared to take a three-month subscription for any magazine, he’ll be happy to order it.”

Oh God. Was it always this much hard work? Didn’t WH Smiths used to be an enjoyable experience? It’s not a bread shop in Soviet era Russia is it?

Oh, one final question, Katie. Have you been to the Liverpool ONE store?

“I haven’t actually visited that one, no.”

35 Responses to “There Be No Culture Here”

  1. Bloody brilliant article – I’ve been complaining to anyone who’ll listen generally about WH Smiths for years and specifically about the Liverpool One since it opened.

    The store at Speke Retail is no better, at least Chester makes something resembling an effort!

  2. Future are doing an all-out assault on subscriptions at the moment, heavily offering them at every opportunity. Could there be an argument tight-assed publishing houses are also to blame?

  3. Circulations are down so much though since the phantom recession. I’m not championing smiths or waterstones – I hate them. But until that Murdoch chap makes everyone pay for things online then It’ll probably continue to dwindle on the mag front. Which is a shame because I still enjoy lopping one off to Hustler every now and then.

  4. We’ve had the same conversation recently in this house. My boyfriend now has to trek up to the train station whsmiths which, despite it’s size, is better stocked in magazines. They do stock the new yorker there. But it’s not the same as going to Waterstones and having a browse of mags and books.
    I admit to being impartial to paperchase, but the one in the met quarter is more than adequate, and I preferred my waterstones as it was. I loved them separate… together, I don’t know, they’re not as good.
    I have fond memories off the old WHSmiths. I used to be able to waste ample time in there, browsing their well stocked shelves, staring fondly at the biro options, softly touching the notebooks.
    I remember that period of purgatory, when the old store closed before the new one opened. I walked up to it’s doors one day and saw that they were no longer operating. Closed for business. I could see staff working away, sticking all that lovely stock into big yellow boxes. I comforted myself with the thought that soon a new WHSmiths would open. Soon. A shiny new floor. It HAD to be even better than the old one.
    As soon as I entered the new store I noticed the flooring. I was perplexed, perfect if you want to mop up piss and shit, not the stuff for stationary dreaming. It just… didn’t seem right. This was a brand new WHSmiths, why the piss proof floor?
    And then I hit a wall. The back wall. I had only walked a few steps and there it was, the end of the shop. The Old Smiths seemed to go back forever, with that wonderful staircase taking you down to even more. This one came to an abrupt end.
    Oh, but there’s another floor, I think, that is where the awesome is. My hope and I had to go up the blank narrow staircase single file, and by the time I got to the top it’d turned around and done a runner.
    Please Smiths, Waterstones, sort it out.

  5. Great feature…. so now there is nowhere to buy decent mags… even borders in speke has gone…. hmmm maybe someone should open a unique magazine/book shop in the city… im thinking something like Franks in central London or Athenaeum in Amsterdam… oh but maybe not in Liverpool ONE as this would perhaps be a little too quirky for them!

  6. Absolutely. I used to work in WH Smiths Birkenhead, and it’s deeply sad how far it’s fallen. (Incidentally, the Birkenhead store has also been reduced to a third of its size; it’s now in a unit that used to be part of Littlewoods). Even if you argue that Liverpool had too much space – the basement floor certainly seemed to be over-blessed – that still left two floors of good, interesting stock. New Smiths is horribly small and has a scent of death about it.

    FYI: Chester and Crewe stores are both “regional centres” and were built with extensive training areas behind the scenes, which probably explains why they continue to be larger in scale.

    Liverpool One Smiths is a tragedy and, as Rosie says, Lime Street is a far better bet for magazines. The loss of Waterstones too (and the failure of Borders as a chain, disappearing from Cheshire Oaks and Speke) means that you have to turn to the net to get any kind of interesting thought provoking article. Which kind of defeats the object of a magazine, doesn’t it?

  7. Those last two lines pretty much sum up the entire article and the point that’s trying to be proven.
    Though, now-a-days, that is the case with most nationwide stores, these executive people try and convince us that this is what people want, yet they have asked no-one, they just THINK it’s what they want.
    And they say ”Oh, yes, our stores are briiliant, they have everything all the customers want”, yet they don’t because, they haven’t been there to find out, and even the employees who work there, say ”Yeah, it was better the old way”.

  8. Paul Clark

    Great article, everything you say is spot on.

    WH Smiths used to be a one-stop-shop for me (for CDs, books magazines, stationery) but they are an organisation resting on their laurels.

    I would say that they could go the way of Woolworths, but they have their distribution, Post Offices and airport/railway station monopoly to rely on. Their attitude to the shops is definitely second rate. As your article points out their is no where else to go.

  9. Great article.

    I used to work in Waterstones. I left just as they opened up Paperchase.

    We took out the magazines for a few days while the builders were installing the Paperchase shelves and tills (and putting up that ugly wallpaper!). Then we put the magazines back. Then we had some visual merchandisers come in. Then they were taken out. They expanded the local book section and put in a reading section downstairs for the oldies who can’t get to the upstairs ones (which I think is good.)

    From what I understood it was a combination of flagging sales (each section has to make a profit that is in keeping with the amount of floor space it takes up) and also the fact that there just wasn’t a good place to put them.

    Also it lost a lot of money for the store having to send back the unsold magazines to get a refund (not sure if they got partial refund or what for the unsold ones). In terms of the store’s profits it reflected VERY badly on the end of year reports. Not just because it was losing money, but also because the money that section was losing was linked into the Loss Prevention figures and so they had a headache with it.

    Too much of a pain to keep in, in other words.

    I know that it might sound really awful to have gotten rid of the magazines, but that’s culture’s fault rather than the stores. I think. If we don’t buy them in enough numbers, then the stores can’t make money.

    I’m not trying to defend the stores, but they are right – they’re just reflecting the trends.

    The majority of the population can get the stories/news/articles/hobby related info from the internet. So the bottom has dropped out of the market.

    Until digital ‘iPad-style’ devices come in to replace the paper, the magazine is in limbo.

    In terms of the stores thing – I predict that the big business’ will withdraw from the streets to make their profits from online ventures. Once we’ve got lots of retail units free (provided they’ve not been converted into living spaces [and/or barricaded against armies of the un-dead]) then smaller retailers can come back and reclaim them.

    We’ll have smaller, niche retailers with character again and walking to the shops will mean walking through outdoor markets and street carnivals.

    Also everyone will be made to learn and instrument and impromptu crowd-sourced performances will ring out through the oxy-fresh air.

  10. Esperanza

    @Jenson is right. Save the independent bookseller. NFN is the best shop in town. And they will order anything. And you can have a cup of tea.
    And Alexei Sayle is coming soon (Sept 11 I think)

  11. Jensen, you’re right of course – that the stores have to turn a profit, but why the slash and burn approach? The magazines do sell: and good retailers know how to sell them – if you constantly move things around/don’t promote them/don’t give a line the chance to settle in, it’s never going to take off. It’s like the famous Waterstones tables: they’re retail gold, aren’t they? I’m not suggesting they placed Creative Review on the tables, but some co-ordinated initiative to say ‘hey, we’re the only place in town you can buy art and culture magazines’ might well have paid off, if only the Loss Prevention mavens weren’t breathing down their necks. Sadly, fast retail is only heading one way: black and white shopping. I simply don’t believe there are more Frieze Magazine readers in Chester than in Liverpool. The fact is, Chester’s shop’s been there longer – more time to build an audience.

  12. @David – Great point. I think if they did have them as more of a focus in store and didn’t shift them about they would be a lot more popular. They would sell much better and word of mouth would be all the advertising that the store would need.

    Except that profit isn’t the real focus. LARGE profit is the focus. Magazines don’t give a large enough profit to keep going with them.

    If it was ‘just’ a bookstore, then Waterstones could give some space to magazines because they would be in keeping with the atmosphere of the store. Part of the reason for this would be that there would be no other options, even if magazines are poor at making real profit for all the space they take up in sore.

    Except now that Waterstones (as well as a lot of other highstreet stores) are trying to be all-singing, all-dancing, supermarket-style, pile it high (whatever ‘it’ is) stores; they’ve got other things to put into store that make better profit for them.

    Like a paperchase store – because the space is sublet. (*Also: The staff at paperchase in-store are also able to sell Waterstones products, so Waterstones doesn”t need to imploy as many of its own staff anymore.)

    Or Dvd’s. (*They are owned by HMV after all. They sell Dvd’s at a much higher price than HMV too, so every sale in store must be worth 2 HMV sales.)

    Or Ereaders. It wont be long before you see an Apple-esk table filled with e-reading gadgets. People wandering through the doors just to touch a bit of the ‘new’ technology. Children drawing obscene pictures (check the ‘drawings’ section on the current e-readers in store, there’s always something funny on them).

    A last point that I’d make is that I think, given the fact that they want to sell books (mostly) a FANTASTIC idea would be to just put the magazines in their respective sections.

    Art goes in the Art section – so that to get the magazine a customer has to walk through the Art section (as well as past the Waterstones Tables) and might well buy something they spot along the way.

    That way, if they put the magazines under the control of the person who runs the section, they’ll buy in what people want, they’ll order more if needed and the profit will go into that section’s score, rather than looking feeble on its own.

  13. That makes sense – even just end of aisle racks, so they’re not taking up precious shelving space. As you say, though, if the algorithm says ‘Nah, use that space for novelty cards’ it’s just never gonna happen. Eventually, it will come full circle, I agree with you. Just a shame we’re in the downward trajectory right now.

  14. I miss Borders. They at least had a decent selection of photography magazines and US mags. Just can’t buy them anymore. I often forget that WH Smiths exists, and barely buy any magazines these days partly because I simply forget that there are shops that sell them.

  15. Magma Books (MCR and London mag stores) have ace interview on their site ( : “…Retailing is a creative act, just like advertising or design. ‘A lot of people have missed this,’ he reckons. ‘Even most people working within retail. Retail has a voice. It just hasn’t learnt how to use it. It has an immense potential for communicating to a very large number of people. I believe that you can actually shape a culture with a shop.’…”
    Shame we’ve not got one in Liverpool. Yet.

  16. If we could overcome the problem of cheeky people robbing them, we could just get FACT or somewhere to subscribe for a few different ones and put a donations cup next to them.

    I’d pay £1 to read a few choice magazines while I’m sipping a coffee.

    If lots of people did the same, we’d pay for the subscriptions (while still saving money individually) have a great place to chillax and FACT could get a few more people’s bums on seats.

    Damn my socalist leanings. It’s a utopia I’m thinking of. That idiot in the tweed would still bag up all the magazines and leave us high and dry!

  17. It’s not just magazines, it’s the whole attitude to anything that’s not a celebrity biography or will sell in droves. It is quite frankly disgusting, not to mention depressing, that Liverpool for all its ‘city of culture’ doesn’t have a good bookshop. Waterstones is O.K, News from Nowhere is amazing but specialist and small (I wish they would have a site as big as waterstones, it’d be heaven!). Smiths, eh does it ecen sell books anymore? The whole shop seems to be taken up by the post office que (but that’s a whole other rant).
    I was in waterstones last weke looking for foreign language books, Borders in Speke used to have a section for them; waterstones doesn’t. There were about 2 dotted inbetween phrasebooks and some poetry just happened to be in parallel text.
    For the main bookshop in a big city this is pathetic.
    Blackwells is crap too, a few core text books for courses (never had what I wanted for my course either) and little else, given the size of the universities in the city their teeny, tiny shop is abysmal.
    Is a good, large(ish) scale, general, independent bookseller too much to ask for in a big city?
    I don’t for one minute buy this ‘but people don’t want to buy this’ shit, why are we being told by shops they’ve stopped selling something we’ve asked for because there’s no demand? If there was no demand no one would be asking for it would they? If you don’t sell it of course no one can buy it. Or how about say aceepting you may need to make a loss on some items and recoup it by selling other stuff? (joke books about amusing road signs?)
    And do they really make that much money off tiny notebooks too small to write in and Cath bloody Kidston trinkets o’crap?
    But I’m off to London in a few weeks and I may take an extra suitcase to cart some books and mags back.
    Or just go the Library when it re opens, pester them with a list of things to order and erm pay off my collosall fine.

  18. Can I just say that I love that I know half the people who’ve commented in this thread. That’s hyperlocal at work.

    On topic: the selection of magazines in the Liverpool One kiosk reflects a narrowing of culture overall. I used to read a magazine called Shakespeare Scene. It closed last year and after phoning the company up it transpired that they could only secure national distribution through Borders so when that closed they had to as well, unable to continue on subscriptions alone.

  19. The Waterstones in Manchester is great and stocks anything you could possibly need. The one in Liverpool is dire, and useless.
    I had considered making a complaint, but instead I figured I would just not go there anymore and eventually when everyone abandons it, it will just shut down.
    The selection of books is really poor. I needed a programming book the other week and the selection was tiny, and erratic – a sign of staff who don’t understand the books.
    I browsed on other topics, books out of order everywhere, and really poorly looked after – may as well have been rooting through a jumble sale.
    I walked out.

  20. As an indication of how Smiths now treats it’s customers, I was in the Speke store last night at 7.40, store due to close at 8, when the staff started to turn the lights out as a subtle hint that they wanted us to leave.

    We had gone there specifically to buy book tokens – my partner asked at the till, only to be told that they were sold on Smiths gift cards and they didn’t have any – there were dozens hanging up behind the counter, the girl just couldn’t be arsed to process one.

    So that’s me done with Smiths – the sooner the whole sorry enterprise goes to the wall, the better!

  21. I have had a £10 ‘book card’ from W. H .Smith’s for about a year. I have been unable to find £10-worth of books I actually want in Smiths in all that time. The new shops are awful as has been said above.

    Waterstone’s is rubbish, the new shop in Liverpool One is more a souvenirs and novelties shop than a bookshop, which might explain the hopelessly erratic alphabetical order on the bookshelves: Daphne du Maurier filed under ‘D’ instead of ‘M’, the ‘St.’s plonked in the middle of the ‘S’s, not at the beginning, etc.

  22. It’s a sorry state of affairs that when I think of buying a book in Liverpool, HMV springs to mind before either Smiths or Waterstones.

    Dark days.

    Best dedicated bookstore in Liverpool? Bluecoat books on Hanover street. If a little on the eccentric side.

  23. tom george

    …I just hate having my soul scoured by the lazer eyes of the over-keen security guard.
    For fucks ache, just ‘cos I don’t shave some days, wander into shops, stand completely still whilst staring at the floor, then wander aimlessly among the magazine racks humming loudly doesn’t mean I’m a menace to society.
    “You alright, mate?” he barks at me as soon as I cross the threshold of his tardy feifdom.
    Actually, I’m not alright; but I’m not a scally either…

    WHSmiths has long been one of the sanctuary of the city centre wierdo (and when I say ‘wierdo’ I mean higher being) – the stained anorak-wearers wheezing over Amateur Photographer, the dried-up spinsters rooting for The Lady, the tweedy academics thumbing through National Geographic…

    For a drop-out drifting in 1980’s Sheffield, WHSmiths was a homely santum somewhere between Woolworths and the central library. Hovering for half an hour, chiefly over the music section, which held exotic imports such as Spin and Rolling Stone, I was briefly transported to a realm where everything was available. Myriad flavours of news, inexhaustable supplies of culture, and with a furtive glance at the top shelf, sex. WHSmiths, in a sense, was the internet…
    To be continued (or not, it seems…)

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