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)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (102) 7 September 2023

The Church of Saint Ambrosios and Saint Stylianos, the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford, was once the Anglican parish church of Saint Mary the Virgin on London Road (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and this week began with the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XIII, 3 September 2023).

Before today begins, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection.

This week, I have been reflecting each morning in these ways:

1, Looking at a church on the route of the annual Ride + Stride, organised by Buckinghamshire Historic Churches Trust and taking place next Saturday, 9 September 2023;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Inside the Church of Saint Ambrosios and Saint Stylianos, the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Church of Saint Ambrosios and Saint Stylianos (Greek Orthodox), Stony Stratford:

The annual Ride + Stride organised by Buckinghamshire Historic Churches Trust takes place on Saturday 9 September 2023. Participants may be cyclists, walkers, horse-riders or drivers of mobility scooters. They can be of any age, but under-13s must be accompanied by an adult. All denominations are welcome.

Participants may visit as many churches as they like, planning their own route, and are asked to seek sponsorship from friends, relations and colleagues: so much per church visited or a lump sum. https://ridestride.org/

Ride + Stride offers opportunities find out what lies behind the churchyard gates of Buckinghamshire’s many churches and chapels.

Ride + Stride is open to walkers as well as horse-riders and cyclists. It always takes place on the second Saturday of September, between 10 am and 6 pm, and aims to raise money for the repair and restoration of churches and chapels of any Christian denomination in Buckinghamshire.

Half the money raised goes to the church or chapel of the participant’s choice, and the other half is added to a general fund administered by the Buckinghamshire Historic Churches Trust.

Churches are encouraged to make applications to the trust for grants to help with church repairs and restoration. Last year’s Ride + Stride event raised more than £26,610. Last year, the trust awarded grants totalling £28,000 to 11 churches that applied for funding to assist with both major and minor works.

My photographs this week are from some of the churches taking part in this year’s Ride + Stride next weekend. This morning’s photographs are of the Church of Saint Ambrosios and Saint Stylianos, the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford, which was once the Anglican parish church of Saint Mary the Virgin on London Road.

The church was designed in 1863-1865 in the Gothic style by Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878), a prolific architect of the Gothic Revival.

The iconostasis in the Church of Saint Ambrosios and Saint Stylianos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 5: 1-11 (NRSVA):

1 Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2 he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ 5 Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ 6 When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7 So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ 9 For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ 11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

Candles burning in the church on a recent Sunday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Harvest.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday. To find out more, visit www.uspg.org.uk

The USPG Prayer Diary today (7 September 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

We pray for harvests this year and next. That they will be bountiful and protected from the elements.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
who called your Church to bear witness
that you were in Christ reconciling the world to yourself:
help us to proclaim the good news of your love,
that all who hear it may be drawn to you;
through him who was lifted up on the cross,
and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

God our creator,
you feed your children with the true manna,
the living bread from heaven:
let this holy food sustain us through our earthly pilgrimage
until we come to that place
where hunger and thirst are no more;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Saint Joseph the Hesychast and Saint Paisios of Mount Athos … two icons in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Icons on sale in the parish hall during the recent the recent Greek Festival (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)