by Peter Hitchens
Wednesday, 2
February 2022
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16:02

Is this farewell to Blackwell’s?

Its sale may presage the end of bookshops as we know them
by Peter Hitchens
Blackwell’s Broad Street bookshop in Oxford

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. 

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.   

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Peter LR
Peter LR
6 months ago

I buy all my books from Blackwells online; they offer free delivery and of course pay their due of taxes (unlike their international competitor). I hope that service continues.

Colin Baxter
Colin Baxter
6 months ago
Reply to  Peter LR

Likewise, I buy online from Blackwells nearly every week, and for the same reasons

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
6 months ago

Hi Peter… I remember that youtube you did with John Anderson, where you said you had given up…..

Just want to say you are a Grand institution yourself, and I have really gotten a lot from your works…..

Zac Chave-Cox
Zac Chave-Cox
6 months ago

Toppings in St Andrews remains probably the best bookshop I’ve ever been in – it seems to do thriving business with both the university students and locals, and is a pleasing rabbit warren of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves – they even serve you tea while you browse – which I suppose violates Peter’s rule of leaving browsers alone, but I consider it an welcome intrusion!

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
6 months ago
Reply to  Zac Chave-Cox

The ‘Lilies’ at Weedon near Aylesbury, used to offer a similar service. An afternoon of sheer nectar!

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
6 months ago

There is a nice new bookshop in Bath
https://mrbsemporium.com/

Su Mac
Su Mac
6 months ago

Ah yes, the lovely Mr B’s – not “new” exactly, I loved it when I lived near Bath at least 6 years ago and I still have many books bought there, including a Danish baking book with a delightful handwritten Mr B’s bookmark. Their wrapping with brown paper and sealing wax is delightful.

Claire D
Claire D
6 months ago
Reply to  Zac Chave-Cox

Or a welcome infusion.

Su Mac
Su Mac
6 months ago
Reply to  Zac Chave-Cox

Jolly nice branch of Toppings in Bath too..

Andrea X
Andrea X
6 months ago

In all honesty I do not remember the last time I set foot in a bookshop that wasn’t in an airport or a train station. Sad? Perhaps, but what can anyone do about it? Protectionist laws are the only short term measure, but I am not sure that even that would work.

Last edited 6 months ago by Andrea X
Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
6 months ago
Reply to  Andrea X

I do. I went into our local to buy a book of Mark Helprin’s. At the register, the cashier shouted in horror, “Mark Helprin?! You DO know he was a speechwriter for George Bush!” I said, “No, he was a foreign policy advisor and speechwriter for candidate Bob Dole”, paid for the book, and walked out, never to return again. That was about 20 years ago, so I can only imagine that political shaming is far worse now. I buy all my books online.

Su Mac
Su Mac
6 months ago
Reply to  Andrea X

What can anyone do about it? Easy! Go into these shops to keep them open..

ralph bell
ralph bell
6 months ago

Waterstones in Manchester has survived the online book attack, so far, although WFH may bring new challenges.
Students have also been away form University and kettled in their halls which won’t have helped.
I have never been in such an amazing bookshop as Blackwell’s in Oxford, it maybe could be run as an attraction if the tourists return.

James Watson
James Watson
6 months ago
Reply to  ralph bell

As a frequent tourist in London in the 70’s no trip was complete without a trip to Foyles. Now a shadow of its former self I hear. Never knew of Blackwells but I might have one trip left in me.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
6 months ago

I was luckier than Peter Hitchens. In 1973 I was in London – a travelling student from the antipodes. Because I worked part-time in the university library, and they bought books from Blackwells, the university librarian contacted Blackwells and made a time for me to visit. I was picked up at the station and taken in the Blackwells’ Rolls Royce to the bookshop where I had tea and polite conversation with one of the Blackwells … so civilised!

I buy a lot of books, and now get nearly all of them from Hatchards/Waterstones. Probably like many Unherd readers I always visit bookshops when travelling, and no doubt some survive because of the wow factor. For theatrical effect the prize might have to go to the El Ateneo Grand Splendid in Buenos Aires (which also has wonderful hot chocolate in its cafe):
https://turismo.buenosaires.gob.ar/en/otros-establecimientos/el-ateneo-grand-splendid-bookstore

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
6 months ago

That link is also kind of sad, I assume the Opera House turned bookshop. Grand, but one wonders, what will it be next?

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
6 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Not sad at all. When I was there I went to a concert at the Opera House – still there, still magnificent!
https://www.cntraveler.com/activities/buenos-aires/teatro-colon
I was also impressed by the Rizzoli bookshop in New York:
a nice little video here: https://www.rizzolibookstore.com/store-history-about-us

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
6 months ago

‘Sic Gloria Transit Mundi’.

Andrew D
Andrew D
6 months ago

Gloria should know her place, behind your Transit!

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
6 months ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Touché!

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
6 months ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Very sharp

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
6 months ago

In my two visits to Oxford – the first an unsuccessful University interview, the second a day trip when back in England with my wife – I visited this shop. The endless corridors mentioned by the author are indeed nostalgia inducing as well as ones ability to stand amd browse freely. The only other one I knew with this atmosphere, on a smaller scale was Baggin’s in Rochester, albeit somewhat more chaotic.

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
6 months ago

Thank you Peter Hitchens! This is a magnificent bookshop of which I have many happy memories from my Oxford undergraduate days in the 70’s, and occasional return visits since. To this day, though I stray to Amazon sometimes, I try to support “real” bookshops, a favourite being Daunts in Marylebone.

Su Mac
Su Mac
6 months ago

Oh no! My copy ordered from them of The Real Dr Fauci is delayed I notice…

Alex Stonor
Alex Stonor
6 months ago

I too hope that it doesn’t change too much. I hope it doesn’t loose the music shop or the art shop either. It’s sad that we all guess that change will probably be for the worst.

Liz Walsh
Liz Walsh
6 months ago

Blackwell’s is an institution that would be missed. As an 18 year old Californian, on my first visit to Oxford, more than fifty decades ago, already an habituee of City Lights in SF and various bookstores in Berkeley, I was enchanted. (Also, wickedly amused by a graffito in the loo, which suggested Dame Wanda Landowska performed exotic sexual services!) I never visit Oxford without a visit to Blackwell’s, although on the last occasion, my purchase was from a lower profile bouquiniste facing Christ Church. I am glad to learn from these posts that I can order by mail, and will haste to support a beloved institution.

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
6 months ago

I hope to visit this Blackwell’s someday, and present to the proprietor a copy of my novel, Smoke, the opening scene of which is found on King George VI’s Coronation Day, May 12, 1937.
Perhaps I shall, someday and over the rainbow, even venture into Toppings with my tome, or Lilie’s at Weedon, or Mr. B’s at Bath.
Because the Brits know how to do books!
Someday, over the rainbow, those ancient volumes will be dusted off and become collectors’ items for Generation X, Y and Z-ers, who are still now wet behind the ears. Such a retro appreciation of bound books would be a phenom similar to the current popular resurgence of vinyl LP records.