The loss of an apostrophe signals the end of a dream

When I returned from a year of teaching English on Crete in the mid 80s I was lucky enough to land a job at Waterstone’s. Tim Waterstone himself interviewed me and I was taken on at the Charing Cross Road branch of the recently launched chain. It was a chain because this was the second of the shops. This branch was on the corner of Manette Street and occupied what had recently been the Foyles paperback bookshop.

For the three years I worked in the shop, at least once a day a customer, when about to write a cheque for payment — this was common back then, believe me — would ask if they should make it to ‘just Foyles’.

After telling them they were not in Foyles — and no longer in Kansas, either — the next job was to ensure that they added the apostrophe in the shop’s name. The shops belonged to Tim Waterstone, after all, so the chain of shops was called Waterstone’s. Simple.

And now they no longer belong to Tim — for some considerable time, in fact — and they have had their apostrophe cruelly and unceremoniously removed. In the name of typography or general ignorance. Or something.

The chain of shops has seen a number of owners in the intervening years. The number of stores has grown in number and then shrunk and seems to have grown again. The branch I used to work in is a sex shop now. One of those shops that combines sex aids and not quite popular books about films and music. And sex, I suppose. The sort that displays Helmut Newton albums in the window in some desperate bid to suggest that yes, this is about sex but we can be pretentious about it, too.

I digress. Back to the missing apostrophe.

Tim Waterstone was a fair and educated boss, with a love of books. He is a novelist, too. He paid me enough to live in a bedsit in Highgate. A damp and strangely laid out bedsit in Highgate but it was in a nice part of town, to say the least. There were no zero hours contracts or part-time roles. You were hired and paid a salary and had sick leave and holidays like grown-ups used to get. At no time did I feel I was unappreciated and at no time did I feel exploited. We even got pay rises annually.

And just to stress the point: this was retail.

Tim loved books and we were given a lot of leeway to order the books we loved for our departments. Imagine that.

Removing the apostrophe represents more than a change of typography or a sop to the struggle with the Saxon genitive. It seems to be a kick in the teeth to Tim himself and the sort of bookshop he wanted and tried to deliver. And did deliver, for a good few years. It’s a sign of the changing times, both in bookshops and in retail in general.

Losing the apostrophe is like admitting defeat in an unreported cultural war.