I am not (just) a bookseller any more…

I love working in bookselling and feel privileged to have spent most of my career working at Blackwell’s on The Broad. Each year since 1987, when I started working in the book trade, the ‘death of the book’ has been trumpeted loud and clear. Each year the book has survived – sometimes thriving, sometimes taking a flesh wound.

Throughout this time I have seen my primary role (and that of the shop) as selling books. However, this perception has changed over the past year or so. With a ‘perfect storm’ of threats – the rise of Amazon and their ‘selling new books as a marketing tool’ approach, the significant take-up of ebooks, the sharp rise in tuition fees and the general malaise on the Hight Street and a double-dip recession – just selling books is not enough any more.

Now my role is focussed on making you fall in love with us. Yes, our passion for books will be the centrpiece to this, but it has to become a given that we need to offer much more. 

I was very struck by a recent book by economist John Kay called Obliquity; the central premise being that you are sometimes more likely to achieve a goal by taking an indirect path. Hence my commitment to making as many people as possible fall in love with us rather than just trying to sell as many books as possible. This way salvation lies.

The Damascene moment for me was when we agreed to Creation Theatre staging Faustus in the Norrington Room just over a year ago. It was abundantly clear that there were many hurdles to overcome and the success of the venture was by no means guaranteed. But it was ambitious, boy was it ambitious. I loved that fact. I also loved what it did for the shop – the feedback from audience and customers was overwhelmingly positive and it was the start of a relationship with Creation Theatre that is deeply respectful, mutually beneficial and above all fun. From that moment on our ambitions for many of the things that we do in the shop were raised.

Our events programme is undoubtedly the jewel in our ‘more than a bookshop’ crown – the variety and frequency can seem at times mind-boggling, from a sold out Sheldonian for Steven Pinker to our Writers Group and all points in between. Unbeknownst to most of our customers we run a small campus bookshop at Buckingham New University for part of the year and the size and success of our book tent at the Oxford Literary Festival goes from strength to strength (by my calculation it was probably the third busiest bookshop in the country on those nine heady days in March!) Some of the events that we run are not expected to make any reasonable amount of book sales but we see that being an active part of the cultural scene in Oxford as a fundamental responsibility. Barely a day goes by when we do not have some sort of event – maybe a bookstall in a college, an author talk in the evening or a group of visiting librarians who want a tour of the shop.

If you visit the shop you will, no doubt, notice that we are branching out into selling things other than books. This has the potential to be a tricky path to navigate – we must remain recognisably a bookshop – after all it is what our customers know and love us for and what we want to be doing for years to come. However, we are sourcing a range of quality items to complement our book offer. Examples of this are the ‘It’s All Greek’ statuettes that furnish our Classics Dept, top quality leather satchels or our bookish T Shirts from Out of Print.

It never fails to hearten me when I speak to customers; the esteem in which we are held is inspiring. Of course this can be a double-edged sword as expectations are incredibly high which can lead to disappointment when we fall short. We wouldn’t have it any other way – it truly is the customers – you – that allow the shop to hit the high notes that it does. The fact that genuine friendships are made between booksellers and customers is a source of great pride. We love to hear about the books that you are reading and we love to share with you those books that are dear to our hearts. No algorithmic ‘if you loved x you’ll like y’ here. Our aim is to inspire, delight, amaze and excite each and every person that walks through our doors.

Our relationship with other Oxford institutions – the Bodleian, the Story Museum, BookFeast and the Oxford University Alumni Office to name just four are a fantastic source of support and encouragement. We want to have relationships with all sorts of organisations throughout Oxford and will be working ever harder on this over the coming year. And just imagine if Oxford wins the UNESCO World Book Capital 2014 crown – I might just explode.

And not just Oxford institutions – thanks to all forms of Social Media we are building new and exciting relationships with authors, independent publishers, bookshops and book bloggers from around the world. I am seeking out the very best that is happening in the book world and working on bringing it to Oxford. But I am also keenly aware that the heritage and history that has been made inside our shop has been, to a large extent, hidden away from our customers – bringing that out, polishing it up and sharing it with the world is another part of my day job. One of my favourite phrases that we use here is about us being at ‘the cutting edge of tradition’ – we need to be a modern bookshop but we can best be guided in that by what we have achieved in the past 133 years.

I hope that I haven’t been too indulgent here – feel free to get down on bended knee and profess your love or come back to the shop and renew your vows. 

My final word is to quash the rumour that the job title on my business card says ‘Ambassador for Heritage, Tradition and Romance’ – maybe next year?

3 comments

  1. Yes, I visited Blackwell’s in Oxford earlier this year, when I was on holiday from Australia. The staff really know their stuff – down to “we, have three copies of that book left”. Yes, the books were slightly more expensive than online, but I am honestly happy to pay a little more to be provided with such knowledgeable service. Please – I beg you, open up stores in Australia.

    1. Thanks for the lovely words Angela 🙂 My sister lives in Sydney and I did a tour of bookshops when I visited her last year. I’d be up for running a Sydney Blackwell’s if Mr Blackwell decided that’s where we should open a shop…

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