David 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 Beatles ‘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.
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.
Given 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.
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.