On January 1st 1879 Benjamin Henry Blackwell opened the doors of his brand new bookshop on 50 Broad Street, following the tradition of his father, Benjamin Harris Blackwell, who had opened a bookshop in St Clements in 1846. The shop was very small – only 12 foot square, and legend has it that when there was but a single customer in the shop the bookselling apprentice had to stand outside on the cobbled street to allow enough room for comfortable browsing. In the early days the shop sold secondhand and rare books only.
‘I fear you have chosen the wrong side of the street to be successful’ were the words of publisher Frederick Macmillan on opening an account for Mr Blackwell; as we celebrate our 135th year here we can say with some justification that this side of the street suits us perfectly.
Over the years there have been many changes to the shop – moving into the houses either side, converting Bliss Court (a labyrinth of cramped cottages where the Modern Fiction section currently lives) and, most magnificently, creating the vast underground chamber that is the Norrington Room. The mural pictured here was the last major work of celebrated artist Edward Bawden which, despite the exuberant attempts of some students over the years, remains in pristine condition!
The shop has been feted in poems and books:
“Happy the morning giving time to stop
An hour at once in Basil Blackwell’s shop
There, in the Broad, within whose booky house
Half of England’s scholars nibble books or browse.
Where’er they wander blessed fortune theirs:
Books to the ceiling, other books upstairs;
Books, doubtless, in the cellar and behind
Romantic bays, where iron ladders wind.”
“He was standing at the table in Blackwell’s where
recent German books were displayed, setting
aside a little heap of purchases.“(Evelyn Waugh – Brideshead Revisited)
We are still proudly family-owned, independent in though and deed. It is the legion of loyal customers from all over the world that has ensured the success and longevity of the bookshop. We thank you for your continued support and look forward with eagerness and optimism to the next 135 years!