Welcome, booklovers, to the inner sanctum! Basil Blackwell’s very own office. The room the ‘Gaffer’ (1889-1984) made his home for so many years. The hub, the heart, the epicentre of a book business that grew to be one of the biggest in the world.
Behold: the bakelite telephone connecting him to an ever-expanding network of shop managers around the country; the oar-shaped quill presented to him in recognition of his rowing prowess; the Delft-tiled fireplace which must have cooked up a veritable literary fug; the chair opposite in which once sat his great friend J.R.R. Tolkien, puffing vast plumes of smoke from his Inkling pipe.
And what do we espy on the Gaffer’s desk? Could it be an array of The Morris Oxford Mini-History of Oxford? Could it be that Blackwell’s have just placed a magnificent preliminary order for 50 copies of same?
For once, we find ourselves lost for words. So, to mark this bookish milestone, we take this opportunity to re-publish one of our earliest stories. Carpe Librum!
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 its historic rival, Heffers of Cambridge.
In the midst of all this expansion its Victorian cellar was dramatically extended into an enormous underground chamber, achieved by tunnelling beneath 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 Room 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.
**In addition to Blackwell’s, copies of The Morris Oxford Mini-History of Oxford can be purchased at the Woodstock bookshop and Daunt Books in Summertown, and will shortly go on sale in the Bodleian / Weston Library bookshops. The book is also available online.
All sales proceeds go to The Morris Oxford Verdant Green Fund – ‘Dedicated to the beautification of our brilliant city through the planting of trees and wildflowers.’