Farewell David – Happy Retirement

davidDavid Retter leaves on St George’s Day after nearly 49 years with Blackwell’s. He shared some thoughts about his lifetime in bookselling at the world’s greatest bookshop with Victor Glynn

There are few people currently working for Blackwell’s who have had such a varied and interesting bookselling career as David Retter who retires today. His work for the firm, whilst mostly in Oxford has also taken him to such exciting places as Manhattan. To some people, August 1965 might seem a rather long time ago. After all, the majority of people working at Blackwell’s today were not even born then. Probably the majority who were working then are now helping to run the bookstall by the Pearly Gates. It was the year of ‘The Sound of Music’ and The helpBeatles ‘Help!’ There were just three television channels, all in black and white. Worcestershire C.C. were county champions (of which more anon) and Manchester United starring George Best were league champions.
The young David had just completed his O levels but had not received his results when he came in for a chat with Geoff Neale who looked after the third floor and was responsible for hiring the young -uns. At the end of their conversation Mr Neale told David that he had two options. Go back to school in September and start his A levels and come back after uni, or, he could start the following Monday and be a manager by the age of 21. Luckily for the firm he started immediately. Well, almost immediately, as he was in fact about to go on holiday with his parents so he started two weeks later. The wages were a monumental £5 per week. Given that a pint of ale was 11d (just under 5p) and 20 cigarettes 3s 11d (about 20p) it went quite a long way!
On his first day, having reported to Mr Neale, he was about to be told what his responsibilities were when a telephone call interrupted the conversation. Realizing that this call would take some time he asked another young chap what he should be doing. “No idea” was the response. “I have just started today as well”. It was Keith Clack (for years the manager of our Science department, currently our Library supply manager and also retiring this year.) “He’still has no idea” joked David.
The young Retter’s introduction to Blackwell’s was picking stock mostly for international libraries. This was, he says, a great grounding as a bookseller as one very quickly became familiar with all the departments and the stock range. This was followed by a stint working for the legendary George Crutch who was in charge of mail orders. He finally got to meet customers face to face in his second year
With the departure a few years later of David Hounslow the very presumptuous Retter wrote an action plan for the history department. It worked as he was appointed History Manager.
He was21. Just as Mr Neale had predicted.

Attenborough panorama high res

David witnessed some of the great moments in Blackwell’s history including the opening of the Norrington Room in 1967. This was, he says, a transformative event, changing the shop from being an excellent, though rather old fashioned one, to a modern world class business. The presence on the premises of the Basil Blackwell, ‘The Gaffer’ and Richard Blackwell, ‘The Guv’nor’ also made the place feel very special. David has especially fond memories of Richard, who died whilst still in his fifties. He was, David says, really the person responsible for giving the firm the international stature that it achieved, including such successful projects as University Bookshops Oxford (UBO), the joint venture with OUP. He also, like all good booksellers, had an incredible eye for detail. Standing at the bottom of the staircase onthe ground floor simultaneously reading one the latest “recommends” he would keep a weather eye on the customers and staff. The Gaffer was, in David’s own words, “an amazing man to deal with. He made you feel that you could achieve whatever you wanted to and his depth of knowledge about books was extraordinary.” Toby, he says, was less visible in the early days but was the force behind the creation of both the Norrington Room and Beaver House, our erstwhile Head Office on Hythe Bridge Street.
One of David’s more audacious moves was to re-categorize the history department. It might seem strange to us today, but back in the day the entirety of the history stock was sorted alphabetically by author. Not even by subject. This meant that books on Henry VIII would be found under Bingham, Guy, Rex, Rouse, Weir and Wooding. Not under Tudor History, Henry or even Early Modern.

whenyouvisitblackwellsGiven that “when you visit Blackwell’s no one will ask you what you want…the staff are at your service when you need them; but unless you look to them, they will leave you undisturbed” it must have been a real challenge to browse! David had the revolutionary idea of having sections within the history department. Horror. The switch was done one Sunday (the shop was closed on the Sabbath in those days).
Apparently the History Faculty went ballistic.How dare Blackwell’s muck about with “their” department. David was summoned to the Gaffer’s office in the presence of a trio of Oxford’s historians. These were the medievalist Susan Reynolds, early modernist Keith Thomas and modern historian Michael Hurst. David had to explain the logic of his plan, the Gaffer poured oil on the troubled waters and David’s plan remained intacto.
Over the next decade or so David found himself occupied in all sorts of different roles in Broad Street and beyond. He was for some years Manager of the Ground Floor, a job he really relished as it kept him in touch with the customers which some of his other activities did not allow.Nigel Blackwell, who had come up with the idea of selling academic remainders from the US, sent David and another colleague, Roger Cole, off to the US on a series of buying trips. Tough work but I suppose someone had to do it!

Some years later, following “a spot of bother” a temporary vacancy arose in the Second Hand Department for a manager who could just be dropped into the role. David was asked if he wouldn’t mind doing this for six months or so. He readily agreed to help out. “Twenty years later I am still here!” It is a position he has clearly relished and it is probably the most significant job he has had in terms of the effect it has had on his personal life. It was where a certain young woman by the name of Alison Warfield was working. Now I understand that she wasn’t wild about David’s appointment as she had been hoping to get the job herself! Sometime later, of course, she became Mrs Retter. David has a positive attitude to the changes that are taking place in the world of bookselling and publishing. His career has seen many changes over the years and although the pace of change may have hastened in the last ten years it is an industry that has never stood still. The effective end of the Net Book agreement in 1995 made huge changes to the way in which books were sold. The main change David has seen in the art and craft of bookselling has been the necessity to be able to multi-task. In years gone by each department would have a specialist who was truly grounded in his or her subject. Maybe even better informed than the don’s they served. David is certain that the future will bring unexpected and unanticipated developments in books and publishing. One thing is clear though. His 16 year old’s passion for the printed word has not diminished one iota. And in retirement? Well he sounds as if he will be even busier. Apart from fixing up the garden and doing all those jobs he hasn’t had time for, he plans to read all the books he hasn’t had time to read (can you believe it?) do the ironing (!?), continue to play shops in the village store and spend a lot of time in the shadow of Worcester Cathedral watching his beloved cricket team.

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Maybe, just maybe, that time is now David – we wish you well and thank you for your enormous contribution to Blackwell’s over the years.

The Chesire Cat’s out of the bag – on a rare letter and an auction room

17artsbeat-letter-blog480Last month there was some excitement in the news about a revealing and unpublished letter by Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) which was coming up for sale at an auction in London. Writing from his rooms in Christ Church in 1891 Dodgson complains to a friend about how much he dislikes the fame that the Alice books have brought him, and how he wishes to avoid being identified as ‘Lewis Carroll’ -so much so that ‘sometimes I almost wish I had never written any books at all’.

Given the local connection we’re always interested to buy Lewis Carroll material, but we had a feeling this letter would attract too much interest for us to simply buy it for stock. On the other hand, if we could interest a specific customer in advance, then we’d be able to pursue the letter on their behalf.

After some discussion over the weeks preceding the sale – culminating in a series of last-minute trans-oceanic telephone calls – we’d found a potential buyer and were ready to bid. We had our own expectation about how much the letter might fetch, but on the day, in the sale, it’s anybody’s guess.

Happily, we emerged triumphant, seeing off interest from the phones and internet as well as other bidders in the room. Reports of the sale, however, only said that the letter ‘was bought by an anonymous British buyer who was present in the room during the bidding’, and we had to keep the entire thing top secret until this past weekend, at our customer’s request. On April 17th – with DHL delivering the letter just in time – the University of Southern California revealed all at an evening extravaganza to celebrate the 10th annual Wonderland Award, a prize for art inspired by Lewis Carroll.

lewiscarrollwallAn image of the letter was projected onto the the wall at the announcement of the purchase

It turns out that the acquisition of the letter for their Lewis Carroll collection was planned as a surprise for the donors who had started the collection and award, to make the 10th anniversary of the award even more special – hence all the secrecy. But, after the presentation was complete and the surprise unveiled, it once again made the news, including the New York Times website

So we are at last free to reveal that, yes, Blackwell’s Rare Books was the ‘anonymous British buyer’

Now to find more important unpublished Lewis Carroll items so we can have something to display on Alice’s Day

Enjoy this slideshow of the arrival of the letter at its new home:

Photography Oxford competition – win an invitation to the launch party!!

The Oxford Literary Festival may only just have closed its doors – and its popular marquee – but there’s a brand new festival coming to town, and the team behind it want your help!

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Photography Oxford is launching a major international photography festival later this year, bringing numerous exhibitions of the works of leading photographers to venues across the city, alongside talks, events, films, and photography workshops, from 14 September–5 October.

The festival will see Oxford crammed to the gills with photography, including:

• exhibitions in colleges, libraries, galleries, museums, and maybe even a giant safe,
• talks on a wide range of photography-related issues,
• five nights of movie classics at the festival’s pop-up drive-in cinema,
• a series of critically acclaimed features and documentaries at the Phoenix Picturehouse,
• workshops for photographers at all levels,
• an education programme run in conjunction with local schools,
• competitions where you can pit your own photography skills against the ‘pros’
• and much, much more

For more information, check out the website where more information will be added as the plans take shape.

Instead of an ordinary guide, the team behind Photography Oxford will be producing a festival newspaper, including notes on what’s on and where, articles about photography and Oxford, how to find your way from one event to another, booking information for the talks, and more. And all you have to do is come up with a lively and memorable name for the festival newspaper. Maybe something snappy (no pun intended!) or photography related, or something altogether more abstract. Give your creativity free rein!

The prize for the winning idea, chosen and used as the name of the newspaper, will be an invitation for two guests to attend the festival’s launch party on Friday 12 September 2014, to be held at the Bodleian’s Divinity School from 6-8pm.

So, if you fancy yourself as a bit of a wordsmith, why not have a go? You can tweet your answers to @PhotographyOx or post them on the festival’s Facebook page

The closing date is Wednesday 30 April and the team will announce the winning suggestion on Twitter and Facebook by Friday 30 May.

Good luck!

Bodleian Oxford Author Event: Samantha Shannon Wed 30th April

SamanthaShannon1by Mark PringleBODLEIAN-LIBRARIES-logo-without-strapline

OXFORD AUTHOR SERIES

SAMANTHA SHANNON in conversation with SAM THOMPSON

WEDNESDAY 30 APRIL 2014, 5.15 – 6.15 p.m.
CONVOCATION HOUSE, BODLEIAN LIBRARY

Bone Season PB jacketThe Bone Season, the first volume of a projected seven book series, was published in August 2013 shortly after Samantha Shannon had completed her English degree at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. By November the book had been translated into 27 languages and the film rights secured by a London-based production company.

Dr Sam Thompson is Lecturer in English Language and Literature at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. His novel Communion Town, published by Fourth Estate, was longlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. Dr Thompson has also written for the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books and BBC Radio 4.

Following the interview, wine will be served in the Divinity School where the paperback edition of The Bone Season will be available for purchase (pre-publication).
This event is free but places are limited (100) so please complete our booking form to reserve tickets in advance. However, if places are still available on the day, early arrival might secure you a place.

Plato At The Googleplex

Publishing is, of course, a global industry. However there are still books that only appear on one side of the ocean. When we hear about books that sound interesting but are not going to be published in the UK we are happy to import them.

The only downside to this is that they are unlikely to receive any sort of review coverage which means that we have to give them a different treatment in the shop to help raise awareness.

platogoogleplex

An imported title that we are currently pushing hard is ‘Plato At The Googleplex’ by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein It has received a lot of coverage in the States (hence us hearing about it).

“This could be one of the best-ever demonstrations of the value and utility of philosophy. Richly insightful, beautifully written, it is at once introduction, exploration, and application, revealing the fascination and significance of philosophical ideas and their relevance to life.”
A.C.Grayling

Read the Wall Street Journal review of the book here

Like all the best non-fiction this book will leave the general reader feeling a little bit more clever than before they picked the book up. It is excellent fodder for pub conversations and may, just may, change your perception of certain things. It seems right that the good people of this sceptred isle are allowed to benefit from it too.

The book has pride of place on display in our Philosophy Department, available for £19.99. Come and have a browse or call 01865 333669 to reserve your copy.

 

A very special surprise

One of the most eagerly anticipated events of the Festival this year was legendary bluesman Eric Bibb in conversation with David Freeman on Thursday evening. As expected the audience hung on every word and there were audible intakes of breath as he played some songs in the Sheldonian Theatre.

Imagine our delight and surprise when, at the end of the event, David Freeman suggested that we all decamp to our Marquee for an impromptu set. To be there was just a little bit magic. Eric we salute you and David we thank you for your inspired idea!

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