With its knowledgeable staff, unrushed atmosphere and local community links, Waterstones brought a fresh approach to book-selling when it started to arrive in our high streets in the early 1980s. But none of this would have happened without an independent local book shop in Crowborough.

The well-known book chain, which now has 283 stores and employs thousands of literary-loving staff was the creation of Sir Tim Waterstone.  The celebrated entrepreneur, philanthropist and author who has just celebrated his 80th birthday, grew up in Crowborough and is very clear about the origins of his love of books – and his vision for how bookshops should be run.

The Book Club

He told Your East Sussex that it was in Crowborough that it all began. “In the middle of the high street, on a section called The Broadway, was this bookshop, called The Book Club.  It opened for business shortly after the war in 1947, I think, and later became a major part of my life, especially in the school holidays.  Considering that the population of the village and its surrounding area was so modest in those days, two or three thousand of us at the most, it was a shop of generous size, with a quite excellent and wide range of stock.”

Mr Waterstone said he paid frequent visits to the shop, owned by the “dauntingly severe” Miss Santoro, and would often hear her being coldly unhelpful with her customers’ less-than-informed enquiries.

Browsing for hours

“But once she got used to my incessant presence in her shop, browsing away for hours along the shelves but never buying anything, she treated me with great kindness, and great purpose, and led me to books she thought I would like. She provided me with a bench that she pretended was reserved only for me, and smiled whenever I entered the shop. She was angry with me just once, when she saw me licking a finger before turning a page. I still think of that – and her – if I ever catch myself doing that now!”

Sir Tim has told the tale of his life and the business he began in a memoir, The Face Pressed Against the Window. It is a fascinating but not always comfortable read for anyone keen on biography but it’s especially engaging for anyone familiar with Crowborough. He recounts watching second world war dog fights in the skies above the village, crashed German fighter planes, fleeing the mistreatment of his father, the “plug ugly” All Saints Church, and his home in Mill Drive.

Memories of Crowborough

Snaring rabbits which he sold to the local fishmonger for a shilling a piece – until he was caught red-handed by his furious mother, encounters with Canadian soldiers billeted in the village, the Italian prisoners of war who did local jobs, and the familiar sight of two spinster sisters riding side saddle into the village together with a tame parrot – are some of the other memories of Crowborough he shares.

But it’s not all pleasant memories. Quite apart from the difficult relationship he had with his father, Tim was sent to Warden House Prep School, “a simply terrible place” on the outskirts of Crowborough at the age of six where he says he, along with others, was often subjected to horrific sexual abuse.

While researching his memoir Sir Tim said he revisited Crowborough and was surprised at how much the place had changed. “I did drive down to Crowborough one early Autumn morning to look at the village once more, only to discover it was no longer a village at all, but now a town!  The high street was unrecognisable really. I enjoyed my trip that day, but I confess it left me rather full of melancholy as to the degree of change that Crowborough has seen over the decades.  All good change, of course.  Life never stands still. But…”

“There are happy memories too. There were some strong personal friendships I formed in the village, and I remember those friendships still, and with so much warmth.”

A desire to be around books

But it’s Miss Santoro and her bookshop that have left the most significant Crowborough mark for Sir Tim. He said: “I think she began to grasp early on that I came from a home where books had no role and next to no presence, and that I was a small child who clearly had an intense instinct and desire to be around books. And she, childless herself, and perhaps that was the point, took to that, and set about to teach me and to help me. All she wanted to do was to help me along, to educate me if you like, and she certainly succeeded in that.

“I have no doubt at all that it was Miss Santoro who kindled within me the bookseller vision that three decades later emerged into life as Waterstone’s.  Much of Waterstone’s inherent values, perhaps most of Waterstone’s values, were being tested out there by Miss Santoro before my very eyes.   The quality of her stock range, which as I have said, was broad and decidedly literary in style.  Her marketing outreach into the community, the comfort and warmth of her shop.

Where Waterstone’s began

“Her extraordinary personal knowledge about books, and their quality and their titles and their authors, and her enthusiasm for promoting her favourites.  And – yes – me too really, the boy, the browser, sitting quietly in his allotted place and left undisturbed to read just as much as he wanted,  and as often as he wanted, even though he never bought anything at all.  If Miss Santoro had lived long enough to see it, my suspicion is that she would have watched me driving Waterstone’s into existence without a single ripple of surprise.”

So next time you’re browsing the shelves of Waterstone’s, attending an event, sipping a coffee as you read, or getting a book signed by a local author, think of Miss Santoro, her little shop in Crowborough, and how she inspired a small boy with a fresh approach to book selling.

Main picture: Sir Tim Waterstone, credit Robin Gillanders.