50 broad street

We Have The Loveliest Customers – part 1,005,932…

The bookshop is blessed in having so many wonderful customers who many of our booksellers class as friends now. Every so often one of these lovely people does something that melts our heart. Here is a recent example.

A wonderful woman is a regular visitor to the shop and she approached us to talk about the lack of a mirror in our disabled toilet. She said that she wanted to provide one and would not hear of it when we said that it was something we should do. She had the idea of a bookish quote being engraved on the mirror but was not sure what quote would be appropriate. Her suggestion was that our booksellers should vote on the quote to use. So we did. Groucho Marx won.

Here is a picture of Ulric, manager of the Norrington Room receiving the mirror from this customer who has touched all our hearts. Sometimes the world can appear to be a very lovely place…


“Outside of a dog a book is a man’s best friend. Inside a dog it is too dark to read.” GROUCHO MARX

Do Awards Matter?

Ask any bookseller why they remain a bookseller and the stock reply is ‘I just kinda fell into it, but I love it.’ It is certainly not to get rich and it is often seen as a step to getting published or a job in publishing.

Equally, a significant amount of people who leave bookselling stay in touch and say how much they miss the camaraderie, the closeness to the books and the ‘essence’ of working in a bookshop.

We see it as honourable and important – there is nothing like the satisfaction of placing a book in a customers hands that you know they are going to love. It might even change their life. We take this ‘power’ seriously, and recognise that it is recompense for the inevitable monotony of much of the day job.

Most customers who thank us for what we do have no idea just how heartening it is for us to hear that. It validates what we hold dear. Sometimes it is unspoken, but we see the effect that bookseller recommendations can have on sales of specific titles (our current staff choice in Blackwell’s has seen an extraordinary uplift in sales of those books). Blackwell’s Broad St has just received validation on a grand scale.

This week saw the Book Industry Conference, where the great and the good of British publishing and bookselling gathered to talk about the present and the future. On the Monday night of the conference was the gala dinner and the annual awards ceremony. Blackwell’s was proud to have two nominations – Micha Solana for Young Bookseller of the Year and Broad Street’s very own Zool Verjee for Manager of the Year. We were blown away to win in both categories (Micha shared that award with Gorgina Hanratty of Tales on Moon LaneChildren’s bookshop). Will Gompertz wrote an excellent piece on the awards here

Zool winning has given a real boost to the whole of the shop this week – if a 132 year old bookshop can have a spring in it’s step then it has had that and more since the announcement. Zool may be reticent about me saying this but the award was truly deserved – he has been instrumental in raising our ambition as a bookshop. The fabulous collaboration with Creation Theatre wouldn’t have happened without him. He has taken on stunning events with the likes of Amartya SenShirley Williams and Richard Dawkins to name just a few. He has helped to build and build the bookselling activity at the Oxford Literary Festival over a number of years. Two weeks ago he took the Eurostar to Paris to sell buckets of books at an Oxford Almni reunion. His ability to manage detail whilst maintaining an impressive vision for the possible is extraordinary. Of course (and Zool would be the first to insist that this is said) many other people are instrumental in helping us deliver our Events and Marketing activity. That the British book industry explicitly recognised his talents is not only a reflection on Zool, but also a stamp of approval on the direction that we are working on taking one of the great bookshops in the world.

Zool, I salute you. And I love your rather marvellous trophy

The Guilt of Re-Reading Books

It is a rather marvelous thing to be surrounded by books all day at work. Books that have changed the world, books that might still change the world; books that remind you of the best of times and the worst of times in your own life; books that matter and books that only matter to you. But also, in a bookshop the size of Blackwell’s on Broad St there are inevitably dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of books that you haven’t read and that you wish you had.

No biggie. Accept that there will be books that I don’t get around to reading – read the books that I want to read, not feel that I should read.

But this ‘problem’ does still have an angle that perturbs me; I often feel guilty about re-reading books rather than cracking on with something new to me. And so this morning I was clearing some of my bookshelves at home and Don DeLillo’s masterpiece Underworld was sitting in my hands staring up at me. I read this book back in the mists of time – 1998 I think, but great swathes of it have remained with me, especially the Prologue – 63 pages of compelling detail about a baseball game. I really fancied reading it again and have spent a lovely couple of hours this afternoon transported to the bleachers at the Polo Grounds watching the Giants and the Dodgers play for the 1951 National League pennant. Bobby Thompson’s ‘Shot heard ’round the World’ and all.

No guilt for me today. Just pure unadulterated pleasure.

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The Rise and Rise of the Literary Festival

Once again we are delighted to be the onsite bookseller at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival. Whilst the amount of time and nervous energy that this takes up is huge we wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world from 2nd-10th April. Logistically it is the biggest operation that we run outside of the shop. This year will be the 15th installment of the Festival, growing from a very small affair into arguably the third most important literary festival in the UK behind Hay and Edinburgh.

Against a backdrop of economic uncertainty, cuts to cultural programmes and the oft-predicted demise of the traditional book are we at the pinnacle of festival fever?

The growth of literary festivals over the past years has been much commented on, my observations on this are as follows:

  • whilst writing and reading are essentially solitary pursuits our general need for sociability and communality have not diminished over the years, but the opportunities for them have. Whereas location and family used to be the natural drivers of collective behaviour this is being supplanted by groups drawn together by common activity e.g. football and festivals
  • book festivals are seen as having an intellectual stamp of approval – being seen at them is a positive statement, and it gives a definite feelgood factor to attendees
  • whilst authors are not necessarily the best ‘presenters’ in the world they are often unnervingly honest and they are amazingly accessible at these events. To see the real person on whose printed words you have feasted on can be truly inspiring, especially those unexpected nuggets that shine new light on a book. I remember seeing David Mitchell a few years ago when he mentioned that, having written each of the narratives in Cloud Atlas separately, he hadn’t seen the finished structure of the book until it was published.

With our position at the geographic heart of festival means that we often see, feel and hear the ‘buzz’ when a particular event is so good that the enthusiasm of the audience spills out into the marquee and grabs the attention of everyone there. If you ever doubt the power of books then you should experience this – it is truly uplifting.

Books matter and this most communal of activities for book-lovers are the perfect place for you to renew your vows. So, who are you going to see?

A severe case of booksellers block

Apologies for the lull in proceedings from our maiden post. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw; there are a thousand reasons but no excuses.

There has been no lack of activity in the shop over the past months with a frantic ‘last-minute’ Christmas (runaway bestseller for us was A History of the World in 100 Objects) and the first ever play to be hosted in the shop. We will be talking more about the joys of Creation Theatre in a future post.

Our main focus at the moment is the upcoming Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival. Top of my list of events to go to is Sarah Bakewell talking about Montaigne and the incomparable Kazuo Ishiguro – surely one of the greatest literary craftsman of our generation?

If you are attending the festival do come and talk to our booksellers – we are a very friendly bunch…

Marilynne Robinson, Tony Benn, and the role of bookshops

So – the Autumn Events Calendar at 50 Broad Street is about to go into full swing and it’s a time of great excitement on many levels . . . Apart from anything else, we’ve looked on enviously at the event calendars of our rivals for a little while and now there’s the feeling that our calendar might actually be the best around . . Dare we believe it to be so?! Marilynne Robinson is the undoubted highlight and the event(s) that everyone has been buzzing about straight away – she is a world-class writer, some would say our greatest living novelist, and to have her name grace our programme is just awe-inspiring. (If you have not yet read ‘Gilead‘ – please elevate it to the top of your ‘Must-Read’ list – you will not regret it, it is a truly beautiful, powerful novel – the best book I read last year). But the whole programme has a real quality to it – events that will really intrigue, inspire and enthrall – Ian Sinclair, Bettany Hughes and Audrey Niffenegger all feature . . .

Tony Benn said at a recent Oxford Literary Festival that literary festivals (and, by extension of that, all programmes of author events) are almost like the new public meetings – not just individual occasions of interest but actual forums where the world moves forward through discussion, free and frank exchanges of views, philosophical extemporisations . . . a pretty inspiring thought, no?

The media has it that we are a politically apathetic nation, but if you are an audience member during a discussion where any big issue of the day is being discussed – you can witness just how much people want to engage with our writers and thinkers – people have views, they have challenging questions, they want to twist and grapple with thorny subjects, they want to apply the rhetorical machine gun to loose and flimsy thinking and they find that events and panel discussions can be just the forum at which this intellectual scrutiny can take place.

Of course, bookshops as a whole are focal points of debate and discussion too. An inspiring fellow bookseller once told me that bookshops ought not just to be reflecting the debates going on in the news, in pubs and in universities, but ought to be playing a role in creating some of those debates too . . .