Artillery Row

Blackwell’s: an undesirable new chapter?

The sale of the bookshop is not a good omen for the book industry

Everyone literate has their favourite bookshop, whether it’s Shakespeare & Co in Paris, the Strand in New York or Heywood Hill in London. But for me, the spot that I have returned to most often over the years is the Blackwell’s flagship on Broad Street in Oxford: the largest independently owned bookshop in Britain. Over the decades that I have visited, there have been minor alterations to stock locations, and of course changes in staff and personnel, but it retains the most civilised and congenial of atmospheres; half literary emporium of one’s bookish dreams and half penny university, where chances are that you’ll bump into a distinguished academic or writer while browsing the shelves. Who knows, they might even have written the book you’re holding. 

Its reign over Oxford’s intellectual circles has lasted for 143 years, but, regrettably, change may now be afoot. After a tough couple of years’ trading post-pandemic, the shop, and all the other institutions that bear the Blackwell’s name, have been put up for sale, after an attempt to turn the shops into an employee-owned business fell through. While this might have been infinitely preferable — it’s worked well enough for Waitrose, although perhaps not for the currently beleaguered John Lewis — the latest scion of the Blackwell’s family, Julian, has suggested that it would be impossible. In a statement, he said that “I would have loved to have handed over the company to its staff, but I also accept that in order to grow and remain competitive in the future, it is time for new ownership, ideas and investment.” 

The shop became a byword for literary integrity

He went on comment “I have always stood for innovation and transformation in the constantly changing world of bookselling. I am delighted to have supported, and now see, Blackwell’s become a significant player in online bookselling.” Whether or not one agrees with Blackwell — who, after all, should know a great deal more about the business than those who merely browse in his family’s shop — it should send more than a shiver down spines, bookish or otherwise, that the likely buyer is the New York hedge fund Elliott Advisors, which has previously purchased Foyles and Waterstones, and has previously snapped up Hatchard’s, Dillons and Ottakars. (It is usually referred to in business circles as “aggressive”.) The latter two chains are now nothing but a distant memory, and Hatchard’s — a bookshop since 1797, making Blackwell’s look positively Johnny-come-lately — might retain some genteel characteristics but, stockwise, is indistinguishable from the vast branch of Waterstones down the street in Piccadilly. 

 It remains to be seen what is going to happen to the Blackwell’s group, which is for sale — insultingly enough — for “a modest multimillion pound sum’. It has made acquisitions of its own in the past — most amusingly its great Cambridge rival, Heffers — and has also closed down several of its stores, affected, as every bookshop group has been, by the inexorable rise of Amazon. But it remains profitable, with like for like sales in 2021 having grown by 1.9 per cent. Any right-thinking owner would be honoured to take charge of such an iconic business. But can any bookshop, no matter how beloved, really exist without significant change in the current era?

The story of Blackwell’s is the story of bookselling in Britain. The shop was opened on New Year’s Day 1879 by Benjamin Henry Blackwell in its current premises on 50 Broad Street, and, under the auspices of his son Basil — the only bookseller to be knighted — the shop became a byword for literary integrity, something that carries on to this day. Visitors — including tourists — are beguiled by many of its quirks, such as the giant Edward Bawden mural of Oxford to the rear of the ground floor and the excellent Rare Books department on the second floor. It is a monument to bookishness, in the best of all possible ways. And any uncertainty as to what will happen to it is far from welcome, either for its customers or the staff. When I visited yesterday, the booksellers that I spoke to expressed a frank degree of worry about what the future held; as one of them pointed out, the much-loved eccentricities that give it its independent spirit are likely to be ironed out by a faceless corporate entity. 

It is undeniable that digital book buying is the way most people are likely to buy their titles these days

At best, Blackwell’s, Heffers and the rest of them will continue in much the same fashion as they do now, with any corporate interference confined to the most light-touch of developments. At worst, they will lose all of their individuality and charm, subsumed into the Waterstones group — with inevitable closures if it is felt that cities cannot sustain two bookshops under the same ownership, if not the same name — and will be talked of mournfully as a cautionary tale of lost horizons, just as the ever-disappearing antiquarian bookshops of Oxford and elsewhere now reflect an existential shift within the book-buying industry. 

Much as some of us might like to return to a so-called “golden age” of bookselling — and some independents, such as Bath’s Topping & Co and Mr B’s Emporium, have managed to make a greatly enhanced degree of personal service their raison d’etre — it is regrettably undeniable that digital book buying is the way in which most people are likely to buy their titles these days. We live in an era when the Guardian can publish an apparently well-intentioned but deeply stupid article suggesting ways either to save money on buying books or — best of all! — become an influencer and get them for free, at a time when the vast majority of writers are struggling to get by and the when the demise of the high street bookshop is only making it harder for them to make a living. Royalty margins on books sold heavily discounted online are far from considerable. 

But I remain hopeful, despite everything. Book sales from all sources rose during the pandemic, and the mass success of everyone from Richard Osman to Sally Rooney suggests that there is an insatiable appetite in this country for reading, which in turn means that it remains good business sense to keep bookshops open, well stocked and staffed by the kind of knowledgeable, friendly booksellers who built Blackwell’s in the first place. But only someone of truly Panglossian optimism would not see this latest development as a concerning one, and quietly mourn yet another unwelcome staging post in the dread march of “progress”.

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