When you cross the threshold into the Norrington Room of Blackwell’s bookshop, you are entering world record territory.
Surrounding you are nearly three miles of shelves, and on those shelves are over 150,000 books. This is officially the biggest bookselling room on the planet (and doubtless home to a copy of the Guinness Book of Records in which such a fact can be verified.)
What’s even more remarkable is that the original space which spawned this giant emporium was only twelve feet square. In 1879 Benjamin Henry Blackwell, son of the first city librarian, having left school aged thirteen to become a bookseller’s apprentice, rented a room on 50 Broad Street.
Its doors were opened to the public on 1 January 1879 – the year, as it happens, in which Thomas Edison invented the electric lightbulb. A placard within the current shop takes up the story:
From the outset “Mr Blackwell’s little shop” had a special air about it. “Those who came in from the noisy cobbled street” chronicled in a later addition of the Oxford Magazine, “found quiet, and an invitation, not so much spoken as conveyed by the friendly spirit of the bookseller, to scrutinise and handle the books on the shelves without obligation to buy.”
Blackwell’s bookshop grew and grew, rapidly expanding its premises to absorb the adjoining buildings on the Broad. Over the next century new branches were opened, not only in Oxford but across the UK. Finally, in 1999, it achieved the ultimate coup, buying out Heffers of Cambridge.
In the midst of all this expansion the Victorian cellar was dramatically extended into an enormous terraced chamber, achieved by tunnelling under the south-east corner of Trinity College grounds. The resultant room, named after the College President of the time, Sir Arthur Norrington, opened in 1966.
The world of publishing is very different these days – and bookselling with it. Screens blink and coffee cups clink where once all that would have been heard was the sound of pages been turned and the gentle thud of books being put back on the shelves. You can now take a virtual tour of the Norrington online, indeed of the whole of Blackwell’s, including its Rare Books room complete with leather Chesterfield sofa. Times change. But the people who seek out this book-lined grotto are essentially the same as they ever were – students, academics, visiting scholars, browsers, bibliophiles for whom the Blackwell’s motto, ‘For Learning for Life’, still reads true.