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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!

Norrington Room

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.

Norrington Room books

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.’

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Revered publishing consultant, Adrian Bullock, has this memory of the Gaffer:

In 1978 I published Ten Oxford Poets, an anthology of poems by poets living in or near Oxford. I wrote to the ‘Gaffer’, asking him for the name of the buyer I should see to sell copies to. A day or so later I received a letter from him asking me to come and see him at 8 a.m. in his office in Broad Street (now part of the coffee shop on the first floor, where there is still the fireplace). I was taken to his office where he told me that Blackwell’s would take 50 copies immediately and that he would let me have a shop window display for my books for 3 days on publication. He told me that he wanted to do this as what I was doing reminded him of the annual collection of poetry by Oxford undergraduates he had started publishing in 1910 as Oxford Poetry, and which continued publication with some gaps in the interwar years right up till 1951. – AB

Adrian also dug out this charming advert for Elliston & Cavell, ‘Oxford’s Fashionable Shopping Centre’ as mentioned by Jane Mollison below.
Taube Marks (second from right in the photo below) worked at Blackwell’s for more than eleven years. She has this recollection of the Gaffer and of her time there.

Sir Basil used to come to work in a black Bentley, driven by his chauffeur, a ruddy-faced local by the name of Cuthbert. Each day he would make a tour of the office and say hello to staff. When the Gaffer reached my desk he would always ask me the same question: ‘Are you any good?’ To which I always replied: ‘My mother thinks so.’

I joined the firm in 1976 as a bibliographer then editor before going on to become research assistant to Blackwell Technical Services. I think my name had something to do with my advancement … Sir Basil’s son Julian (later Chair of the business) was also known as Toby. I think he was surprised that someone else shared the same name – let alone a woman! – TM 

The Story evoked a more poignant memory for the artist, Jane Mollison

On the wall of the Gaffer’s office is a family photo taken in 1935 featuring the three Blackwell girls. My grandfather owned Elliston & Cavell, the main department store in Oxford at the time, and his son – my uncle – Tom Rose, was being trained in Paris and New York to continue the family business.  He was close to one of the Blackwell girls, and there were hopes of a dynastic alliance. Alas, Tom was killed at Arnhem in War II. As a result the store was eventually sold to Debenhams. What will become of it now?! – JM

Tom Hassall has this wonderful remembrance of the Gaffer’s assistance in a very important mission.

It was good to see the Gaffer’s Desk on the latest Morris Oxford post. I have a special feeling for that desk.

In April 1976 I was appearing at a public enquiry into a proposed development at Wallingford Castle. I urgently needed to provide a reference from a book (W.F. Grimes, The Excavation of Roman and Medieval London) as part of my evidence. There wasn’t enough time to borrow a copy from a library, but I knew it was on sale at Blackwell’s. I realised that if I bought a copy as soon as the shop opened I could just about manage to get to the enquiry before it resumed. I did not know what time the shop officially opened, so I went round at about 8.00 am in order to be able to go straight in as soon as I could. I had only just arrived when a large car pulled up and Sir Basil got out. I rushed up to him and said: ‘Sir Basil, I would like to buy a book from you.’ He immediately replied: ‘Find the book and you can come up to my office and pay for it.’ This I duly did. At my request the Gaffer, sitting at his desk inscribed it: Bought from Basil Blackwell himself, 14 April ’76.

At that moment one of the senior members of staff came into the office. Sir Basil turned to him and said: ‘I have just sold a book,’ at which the other replied: ‘Oh Gaffer, what a wonderful way to start the day.’ Needless to say the book is now one of my most treasured possessions. Furthermore we won the enquiry and Wallingford Castle has been preserved intact for future generations.  TH

Those interested in castles, *must* check out this magnificent model of Wallingford Castle – and imagine what might have been.  https://www.wallingfordmuseum.org.uk/exhibitions-2021
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