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  • Writer's pictureMimi Goodall, PhD

A Brief History of Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford

What is Blackwell’s?

Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford, founded in 1879, is the largest academic and specialist bookseller in the UK.

The blue coloured storefront of Blackwell's bookshop in Oxford

Blackwell’s History

Oxford is without doubt a city of book lovers. Whether it be the numerous students who flock into the university during term time, the learned academics who study in the libraries all year round, or the visitors looking to immerse themselves in the educational atmosphere for a brief spell – Blackwell’s bookshop is there to serve each and every one.

This renowned and historic emporium, with its famous dark blue façade and quite literally miles of shelving, should be top of the list of every bibliophile’s itinerary on a visit to the city. Located a stone’s throw away from the Bodleian Library and the Sheldonian Theatre, Blackwell’s now occupies 48–51 Broad Street, but its origins were much humbler and smaller. On New Year’s Day in 1879, Benjamin Henry Blackwell opened his bookshop at number 50 Broad Street, in a room of just four metres square. When you visit the shop today, you can still see the first ever bookcase that was installed. It’s on the first floor of the shop and has a small gold plaque on it.

Blackwell’s has grown and grown over the last 150 years, both in size and reputation. After the Second World War it expanded its export business, shipping books all over the world, and in 1956, Benjamin Henry Blackwell’s son Basil was knighted for services to bookselling, the first bookseller ever to receive the honour. By the 1960s, the shop had taken over the two neighbouring buildings and was struggling to find more space. Eventually, management decided to excavate the original basement of number 48 and created the Norrington Room, named after Sir Arthur Norrington, then president of nearby Trinity College. The Norrington Room became home to four kilometres of academic books – a total of over 160,000 individual tomes. For many years it held the official world record for the greatest number of books displayed in one room. The impressive underground space is well worth a visit. With such variety, you’ll be certain to find something to pique your interest.

During the 20th century, Blackwell’s also expanded into other media – opening an art and poster shop as well as a music store in further locations along Broad Street. It became the premier academic bookseller in the country after it acquired its Cambridge University equivalent Heffers and Edinburgh-based James Thin. Part of Blackwell’s longstanding success is the company’s ability to meet shifts in public taste and consumer needs head on. It was one of the first retailers to greet the online era, setting up its first webpage as early as 1995, and became the first transactional online bookstore in the United Kingdom.

We recommend heading inside to browse the shelves – you’ll find everything from venerable Oxford classics like The Lord of the Rings and Brideshead Revisited to prize-winning literary fiction, the latest thrillers and a vast array of cookbooks. Blackwell’s hires the best staff in the business who are always willing to provide expert recommendations and help customers find a new favourite author.

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