One of Oxford’s greatest bookstores is undoubtedly Blackwell’s, whose name has long been synonymous with the city and its unrivalled academia. Whilst the chain now owns flagship shops in Cambridge, London Charing Cross Road and Edinburgh South Bridge, it was Oxford’s Broad Street in which Benjamin Henry Blackwell opened his first ever store in January 1879. In those days it was a tiny space 12 foot by 12 foot with room for only one standing customer, one chair and a small back room for storage: if two or more customers wished to browse at the same time Mr Blackwell or his apprentice needed to step out onto the street to make room!
Now, almost a century and a half later, those early beginnings are impossible to imagine – with over 200,000 titles in stock, my first impression of Oxford’s biggest bookstore was of Doctor Who’s legendary tardis, far bigger on the inside than it appeared to be on the outside. However considering its basement, the Norrington Room, gained a place in the Guinness World of Records for the largest single display of books for sale in the world, I suppose this was a fair perception! The Norrington Room is indeed a truly magnificent sight, seemingly mile upon mile of books arranged around a central stage on which Blackwell’s now put original, entertaining plays based on some of our best-loved titles. With gorgeous displays on every subject under the sun and countless information points to help you find just what you’re looking for, it is a veritable paradise for booklovers like me!
Not to say that the rest of the bookstore isn’t great too, as it is – yet more information points, sitting areas and the now requisite bookshop coffee store nestled on the first floor (in this case Caffè Nero) makes this a truly welcoming place to relax and browse. True to the shop’s initial second-hand roots, the second floor now stocks a fantastic collection of rare and second-hand books offering everything from modern first editions to private press and antiquarian books on subjects such as literature, philosophy and medicine to early printing and fine bindings.
The bookstore also holds countless bookish events throughout the year (the next, on Tuesday 3rd July, being the highly unusual bookshop band, who base their songs on books – see http://bookshop.blackwell.co.uk/jsp/editorial/shops/instore_events.jsp for more details.) There are also numerous book signings from some of the biggest authors of our time as well as three reading groups (fiction, non-fiction and teenage) and even three regular literary tours of the city (including one based on the Inklings, on which I based a previous post!)
The shop even has its own highly popular blog at broadconversation.com. With so much going on, not so mention such a fascinating history, Blackwell’s really is something special – even the building has been there since the early eighteenth century and is a Grade II listed building due to its architectural importance. To visit Blackwell’s is not only to visit a brilliant bookstore (and that is a great experience in itself) but to absorb a generous dose of culture too. With stage productions, literary tours and countless other events and opportunities, Blackwell’s gives visitors the chance to really get to the heart of Oxford. Now a both a local hotspot and popular tourist sight in its own right, this innovative booksellers has become one of the most respected in the world and another of our greatest literary assets.
Winning the bid would allow shops like Blackwell’s to get the recognition they deserve in such a harsh economic climate – one which, coupled with recent technological advances, is particularly threatening to traditional booksellers like these. It would be a crying shame if we were to lose any of these places for they are a vital component to the world of books we have known for centuries – it would be not only the world of publishing that would suffer from their disappearance but the whole of society in general as many, such as Blackwell’s, now offer vital services to both city and community. Already we have lost one of our most beloved chains, Borders, which had a branch in Oxford and in whose Manchester store I once had the pleasure of working. Now more than ever, bookshops need our support and winning the bid would allow Oxford’s in particular – home to some of the world’s most important – to get this support and continue providing this internationally-renowned city with such fantastic services within the world of books.