Its sale may presage the end of bookshops as we know them
For lovers of bookshops, the sale of the 143-year-old Blackwell’s on Oxford’s Broad Street is bitterly sad news. I cannot begin to count the happy interludes I have spent there, since I first slipped through its doors nearly 60 years ago. Sometimes I have been surprised to emerge after a visit, to find that darkness has fallen. Nobody has ever troubled me. No busy assistant came and stood noisily next to me pointedly banging books about.
The secret of good bookselling was always to leave browsers alone. This is what Blackwell’s do. They rightly reckon that book buyers respond badly to pressure. And so, year by year, I went back. And I grew better able to buy what I browsed. And I introduced my children to its lovely staircases, seemingly unending shelves and hidden rooms, full of peace and ghosts. Eventually I had the great joy of seeing Blackwell’s stock and sell my own books.
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In those years it has grown less ancient. There is not so much dark wood, the lights are perhaps a little brighter, it has acquired its own café — and why not? What better place is there for such a thing? Yet it took its time. When Robert Maxwell sought to challenge the world’s finest bookshop, opening an upstart establishment in the early 1960s, he offered what was then Britain’s first coffee bar in a bookshop, complete with froth and glass cups and saucers.
But he was too soon. The Oxford of that era was still full of people wearing gowns, and a stern seriousness lay over all. So Blackwell’s was able to beat off this challenge from the frivolous future. Even in the rackety late sixties it fought off modernity with tact. Clever notices (partly in Latin) were addressed to potential shoplifters, pointing out that the gentle old policy of looking the other way while expecting ‘borrowed’ books to be ‘remembered’ and paid for on graduation, could no longer be sustained in that fevered age.
About the same time, Sir Basil Blackwell, son of the shop’s founder, bravely and poignantly gave evidence, aged 78, against the horrible book Last Exit to Brooklyn which was charged with obscenity. He said it had in fact corrupted him, an answer the defence had not wanted him to give.
But the modern age came anyway. I suspect but cannot know that Blackwell’s may now be up for sale because of the effect of the 2020 lockdown when it was shut for months, breaking many longstanding book-buying habits. But nor can it be immune to the laziness and cheapskate money-grubbing which make too many of us browse in shops and then buy on computers. If you won’t pay for a bookshop in your town, why expect it to survive? And how many students, in the age of the smartphone, now read for pleasure?
Let us hope this lovely treasure-house remains alive a while longer. Let us hope it stays in kindly, patient, cultured hands. But I fear the age of the bookshop may be near its end.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for The Mail on Sunday and an Oxford townie.