The company culture came from its founder and managing director, James Heneage - a man who was the antithesis of the grey-suited businessman. Fiercely intelligent and disarmingly honest, he had an unusual background. Expelled from public school, he went on to join the army at Sandhurst and was allegedly responsible for the only mutiny in his regiment's history, when he got his soldiers lost in a jungle.
I suspect that many of the anecdotes about James were apocryphal, but it wouldn't have surprised me if they were true. James was a larger than life character, with a clipped military voice that boomed across the room. During a visit to one shop in early December, James was dismayed to find that there were no Christmas decorations and bellowed at the manager "What are you? Some sort of Calvinist?!"
But underneath the bluff exterior, there was a great warmth and we all felt that he was on our side. I have met many politicians, actors, writers and artists, but few of them have had the charisma that James Heneage possessed. He was a natural leader.
I enjoyed the job because in addition to the mundane business of running a shop, I had the opportunity to hold events, write articles about authors and meet a variety of people at launch parties. Sometimes the encouters were quite surreal: a conversation about NCP car parks with Lee Child, meeting John Grisham in a medieval hall that looked like something out of Hogwarts, dancing with a very drunk Mrs Doyle from Father Ted, meeting a True Crime author who told me that he could kill me with his bare hands if he wasn't a Buddhist, discussing the book trade with Jacqueline Wilson whilst sitting on a merry-go-round, advising Katie Price what she and Peter Andre should read in bed together...it was all very amusing.
I also worked with some lovely people - bright, unpretentious, full of fun, mostly. Most of the staff went on to greater things, but a few would have struggled to find employment anywhere else; for example, one member of staff liked watching DVD boxed sets of Apollo landings in real time and also had a collection of music by Nazi swing bands (one dance hit was called 'Bomb England'), but they loved their books and were a real assett to the business.
When the business was taken over, the new owners said how much they valued our 'passion' and wanted to incorporate it into the wider business, but within a year my job had turned into a very dull admin role, with all of the important decisions made elsewhere. After 18 unhappy months, I decided to leave Waterstone's before they left me.
But rather than dwell on sad endings, here's a small celebration of what I loved about Ottakar's:
I'm not sure if the Museum realised how little we knew about science - we were completely winging it - but I think we got away with it.
I was very flattered when James Heneage told me that I was the ideal man for the job, possessing the necessary tact and diplomacy to deal with the museum authorities. Later I discovered that four people had turned the job down before I was offered it.
In the Crawley branch, we held the longest ever Jacqueline Wilson signing event, which lasted for eight hours. This photo doesn't do justice to the length of the queue.
In Ottakar's the ethos was that quirky, interesting shops were good for business. Staff were encouraged to think of innovative ways to display and promote books, which made the job far more interesting for them. Every shop I worked in had at least one talented artist who produced the most astonishing windows.
The takeover of Ottakar's wasn't a certainty. The bid had been referred to the Monopolies Commission and we spent the best part of a year wondering what our fate was going to be. But on a Monday morning at the beginning of July, I turned on my PC and saw an email that read 'Welcome to Waterstone's'.
My heart sank.
If I ever come into a small fortune, I will revive a branch of Ottakar's just for the fun of it. I suppose the name is copyrighted, so keep an eye out for a bookshop called Ottokers, O.T.Takars or Otto Kerr's.