Reading in Oxford

I love going to Oxford. You feel a bit smarter when you step off the train and progressively smarter as you start to wander through its streets, grand colleges and into the bars and tea shops. Every conversation is just that little bit more learned, that little bit more considered. So it probably comes as no great surprise that even the gift wrapping in Oxford is a little more well …learned and considered.

I give as evidence for this argument the wrapping to be found in Blackwell’s Bookstore on Broad Street in Oxford which caught the eye of my very learned travelling sister. It comes as no surprise that she ended up this most venerable of bookstores as she is a committed bibliophile (FYI a word first recorded in print — according to the Oxford English Dictionary — in 1824). She loves purchasing and giving books and I love wrapping them for her.

We know from the archivists that the store was opened in 1879 by Benjamin Henry Blackwell whose family were firmly committed to reading, self education (the motto of the store is For Learning. For Life) and, as it turns out, book selling.

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The beautiful entrance to a world of books. Photo from Blackwell website

The Blackwell’s website (which credits background information on the history of Blackwell came to Rita Ricketts the Blackwell Archivist) notes that 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 edition 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.

The store was originally only twelve feet square but quickly grew to incorporate the upstairs, cellar and neighbouring shops and today trades over four floors including the suitably cavernous Norrington Room.

Benjamin Henry Blackwell came to be so well regarded in Oxford that he was elected the first-ever Liberal Councillor for Oxford North. His son Basil Blackwell joined him in in 1913 and was charged with expanding Blackwell’s publishing ventures after the first Blackwell publication had come off the press in 1879. The archivists also tell us many famous writers cut their teeth at Blackwell’s and in 1915 J. R. R. Tolkien’s first poem, Goblin’s Feet, was published by them. The publishing company was incorporated in 1921, and a specialist scientific section was added in 1939.

Basil was an a man of book ideas,insight and action.  To ensure access for all, he pioneered a series of cheaper books, from a one-volume Shakespeare to ‘3/6 novels’. He also had a thing about preserving printing. He rescued the Shakespeare’s Head Press and commissioned belles-lettres including a complete version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and well-known classics such as the Pilgrim’s Progress and the works of the Brontes.

As a result of his efforts, the history of Blackwell’s records that “books from Blackwell were soon lining the walls of not only Britain’s academic institutions and fine homes, but also the library shelves of the new universities in the British Empire and America.” Quite. I reakon the University of Melbourne would have had a Blackwell’s account.

Benjamin Henry died in 1924,  and for over sixty years after, Basil oversaw the growth of his own book selling empire. It is still in family hands. Basil was knighted in 1956 – the only bookseller ever to be so honoured.

In 1995, became the first transactional online bookstore in the UK. It now has over 60 outlets across England, Scotland and Wales with a number of specialist stores including several medical outlets and a Blackwell specialising in the oil industry in Aberdeen. Now that’s highly specialised.

Blackwell’s has been featured in numerous books, movies and television shows (most notably Inspector Morse), so it is only fitting it feature in a Daily Wrap Blog. I love the fact that Blackwell’s wraps some of its numerous (and I mean numerous) titles in kraft with a fabulous multi lettered message of what the book is about but not the title.  They say gift wrapping is all about the reveal so this is genius. I will definitely be using this little novel surprise treatment on the hundreds of books my sister buys and I wrap for her. Loving the Blackwell’s stamp in the corner. Genius x 2. I feel smarter just writing about it.




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