Bookshop that grew to be a world beater

5:00pm Friday 10th January 2014

By Thomas Burrows

IT WAS founded as a pokey 12 foot square building that could only fit three people inside.

Fast forward 135 years and Blackwell’s in Broad Street is now one of the largest bookshops in Europe.

It boasts four floors, one of which contains the world’s largest single display of books in one room.

The shop in the heart of the famous city has become one of Oxford’s jewels and attracts hundreds of locals and tourists every day.

But its beginnings were rather less grand.

When Benjamin Henry Blackwell opened the doors on New Year’s Day in 1879, his stock consisted of a few books he had collected and his budget was a loan of £150 from a generous local woman – who fortunately did not ask for a share of the equity.

The Oxford Times:

Benjamin Henry Blackwell

Bookselling was already in his blood – his father Benjamin Harris Blackwell had been heavily involved in the Temperance Society which promoted self-education and encouraged reading as well as religion.

From the outset, it was said that ‘Mr Blackwell’s little shop’ had a special air about it.

Chronicled in a later edition of the Oxford Magazine, an article said: “Those who came in from the noisy, cobbled street found quiet and an invitation, not so much spoken as conveyed by the friendly spirit of the bookseller, to scrutinise and handle the books on the shelves without obligation to buy.”

Today it is a much busier street but the tranquility inside remains.

Sales development manager Zool Verjee has worked at Blackwell’s for 15 years and said while the bookselling industry has changed dramatically over the decades, the founding values remain strong.

The Oxford Times:

Zool Verjee

He said: “Bookselling has changed an awful lot, but we never lose sight of traditional values.

“I think it’s a real privilege to work here as you get to work with an amazing range of colleagues and meet fascinating and generously spirited customers.

“That is why so many people will work here for such a long time.”

When it first opened the shop was so small that if three customers were there at once, Benjamin had to leave the shop and wait outside. But it quickly grew to incorporate the upstairs, cellar and neighbouring shops.

And as the business developed, with books not only lining the walls of Britain’s universities and homes but library shelves of the new universities across the British Empire and America, so did the Blackwell family.

Basil Blackwell, Benjamin Henry’s son, became the first Blackwell to go to university and was awarded a scholarship at Oxford University’s Merton College but nonetheless he was expected to join the family firm.

When Benjamin died in 1924, Basil took over the firm – and became affectionately knows as the “gaffer”.

In 1956 he was knighted and remains the only bookseller to have ever received a knighthood.

Basil worked with notable figures over the years, such as the wife of English playwright and literary critic Henry Graham Greene, and took a punt on a poem written by a young J.R.R Tolkein called Goblin’s Feet.

The Norrington Room was also opened at the Broad Street shop in 1966.

It is named after Sir Arthur Norrington, the President of Trinity College, and holds the world’s largest single display of books in one room according to the Guinness Book of World Records – with two-and-a half miles of shelving.

Blackwell’s also has a fabled history of famous book signings, with the likes of Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu, Sir David Attenborough and Rowan Atkinson all visiting the shop.

The Oxford Times:

Bishop Desmond Tutu

As bookshops contended with the digital era in the 1990s, Blackwell’s led the way and became the first UK bookstore to allow customers to purchase online in 1995, with access to more than 150,000 titles.

And in the same year it opened a flagship store in London’s Charing Cross and now has more than 60 retail outlets across the UK, including a number of specialist stores, such as a shop in Aberdeen concentrating on the oil industry.

Most recently, it entered the world of e-reading in 2012 by striking a deal with Barnes and Noble to sell the Nook.

The company is still in the hands of the Blackwell family and Philip Blackwell, the great, great grandson of Benjamin Harris, son of Julian Blackwell, led the company for six years as chairman and chief executive until January 2006. The current chief executive is David Prescott. As Blackwell’s celebrates its 135rd birthday, the aim is to ensure this famous city landmark continues to prosper.

‘We have embraced change while sticking to traditional values’

Blackwell’s has more than 70 members of staff, many of whom started their careers at the bookshop.
This includes manager of corporate and institute sales Keith Clack, who joined the shop 48 years ago.
Mr Clack, 64, from Witney, said: “The shop has changed tremendously over the years.

The Oxford Times:

Keith Clack

“Basil and his eldest son Richard were a constant sight on the shop floor and constantly mingled with the staff.
“But the shop has remained a family firm and the staff provide a personal service, who love and understand books and genuinely want to help.
“We have had to contend with progress of the retail book trade. We were the first major book shop to become computerised and we have had to embrace changes online. But we have always tried to keep book selling with its traditional values.”
Mr Clack, right, said Basil Blackwell was a “wonderful man".

"He was sharp even when he was in his 90s. He was a bright man and knew just about everyone within the publishing and book selling world.”

OLDEST BOOK

The oldest book in Blackwell’s is in the rare books section. It is a copy of Opera written by Thomas Kempis, which was printed in Nuremburg in 1494 and which costs £10,000.

TIMELINE

1879 Benjamin Henry Blackwell opens his bookshop at 50 Broad Street on January 1, in a room 12ft square.
1889 Basil Blackwell is born in a room over the shop in May 29.
1913 Basil Blackwell joins the family business.
1922 Adrian Mott and Basil Blackwell establish the publishing house of Basil Blackwell and Mott Limited.
1924 Benjamin Blackwell dies.
1938 Broad Street 48 and 49 are rebuilt and merged with 50 and 51. Shelf space is more than doubled.
1946 Richard Blackwell enters the family business.
1954 75th anniversary of the founding of the company.
1957 Music shop opens in Holywell Street.
1966 The Norrington Room is opened at the Broad street shop, the world’s largest single display of books in one room, with 160,000 volumes on two-and-a-half miles of shelving. It is named after Sir Arthur Norrington, the President of Trinity College, and extends under part of Trinity College.
1968 Art bookshop opens at 53 Broad Street.
1970 Sir Basil Blackwell is given the honorary Freedom of the City of Oxford.
1979 100 years celebrated.
1995 Becomes first bookstore in UK to allow customers to purchase online
1995 Opens flagship store in London’s Charing Cross
2012 Enters the world of e-reading by striking a deal with Barnes and Noble to sell the Nook.

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