07 September 2023

Finding a new favourite
bookshop at Blackwell’s
in Oxford, with Europe’s
largest book selling area

Blackwell’s in Oxford has the largest single room devoted to book sales in Europe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

I have spent a day in Oxford once again, having lunch with a friend who is working on a PhD in mission and theology.

One of the delights of a day wandering around Oxford is having time to indulge myself browsing in the bookshops – and I have even found a new favourite bookshop in Oxford. Milton Keynes has its own Waterstones outlet, but there is no proper bookshop in Stony Stratford, so browsing along the shelves of Blackwell’s has been one of the real pleasures of spending a day in Oxford.

Every academic values Blackwell’s imprint as a publisher of books and journals. But in recent months I have delighted in getting to know Blackwell’s on Broad Street. The way this shop has become a tourist attraction in its own right is comparable with Livraria Lello in Porto, said by many to be one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world.

Blackwell’s in Oxford may not have the Harry Potter links, but it is beautiful in its own right, and it too has its own architectural quirks, with the largest single room devoted to book sales in Europe, the cavernous Norrington Room that covers a floor area of 10,000 sq ft.

There are good bookshops in every university town. In Cambridge, I have known and enjoyed Heffers, David’s and the Cambridge University Bookshop for many years, and I miss the bookshops near Trinity College Dublin, especially in Dawon Street.

Sadly, Oxford University Bookshop closed its bookshop on Oxford’s High Street last year. So, it has been a particular delight in recent weeks to get to know Blackwell’s on Broad Street.

In truth, Blackwell’s is not just one Oxford bookshop, but nine. The main shop at 48-51 Broad Street is the largest, holding 250,000 volumes. But there are also specialised shops for art, music, rare books, paperbacks, maps and travel, medicine, children’s books, and a university bookshop. The main shop also has a large used books section, essential to any true bibliophile.

Benjamin Henry Blackwell first opened his shop in 1879 in a tiny building at 50 Broad Street that is now the main shop. Blackwell was a son of Benjamin Harris Blackwell, the first city librarian. He finished his education at 13, and was apprenticed to a local bookseller.

That first shop measured only 12 ft sq, and stocked just 700 used books. But it quickly grew to incorporate the upstairs, cellar and neighbouring shops. Benjamin Henry Blackwell was well respected in Oxford and was the first Liberal councillor for Oxford North.

The first Blackwell publication in 1897 was Mensæ Secundæ, verses by HC Beeching written in Balliol College. Blackwell’s began the careers of many writers, including JRR Tolkien’s first poem, ‘Goblin’s Feet’ (1915). Since the 1920s, Blackwell’s has also published its own textbooks, medical texts, and periodicals.

When Benjamin Henry Blackwell died in 1924, Basil Blackwell took over from his father, and went on to head the company for decades. Blackwell’s catered exclusively to the academic market and gradually opened new shops in university towns around the land. Blackwell’s has become the largest academic and specialist bookseller in Britain and one of the most famous booksellers in the world.

The Norrington Room, with three miles of shelving and covering 10,000 sq ft is the largest single room selling books (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Since the 1990s, the company has followed a determined policy to spread out from its Oxford base and to find a much broader presence throughout the UK.

In 1995, Blackwell’s became the first bookshop in the UK to allow customers to buy online from a catalogue of over 150,000 titles. That same year, it opened a flagship shop in London at 100 Charing Cross Road, which is now one of the company’s six most prominent shops.

Blackwell’s took over the Heffers bookshops in Cambridge in 1999, and acquired the academic bookshops of James Thin in Scotland in 2002. The group were also publishers, and under the Blackwell imprint published more than 800 journals when it was sold to John Wiley & Sons in 2007 to form Wiley-Blackwell.

There was a public dispute in the Blackwell family in 2002, though family members continued running the company until 2022, when the book chain Waterstones bought Blackwell’s. Today, the Blackwell brand has a chain of 18 shops, an accounts and library supply service, and employs around 1,000 staff.

But the very fact that Blackwell’s has managed over the years to keep on expanding in Oxford when the city is so short of space is an amazing feat in itself.

The Norrington Room, opened in 1966, was named after Sir Arthur Norrington, the President of Trinity College. It boasts three miles (5 km) of shelving and, at 10,000 sq ft (930 sq metres) is said by the Guinness Book of Records to be the largest single room selling books.

Blackwell’s managed to create enough space for the Norrington Room simply by excavating under the Gardens of neighbouring Trinity College. So while I was peruse endless miles of bookshelves underground this afternoon, Trinity students were walking around above.

Despite all these changes and expansions, the White Horse has managed to survive as a traditional pub on Broad Street, squeezed in between the façades of Blackwell’s. It is one of Oxford’s oldest pubs, and dates from the 16th century. It has appeared several times in the Inspector Morse series, and it remains an inviting place to sip a cold drink on these record-breaking warm, sunny September afternoons.

Benjamin Henry Blackwell first opened his shop in 1879 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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