Author: euanhirst

I am the Academic Manager of Blackwell's world famous bookshop on Broad Street in Oxford. I contribute frequently to our shop blog, Twitter and Facebook pages. Books are my life...

Blenheim Palace Literary Festival September 25-28

blenheim_palace_north_face__970The literary festival at Blenheim Palace is, once again, upon us. From Thursday 25th September through to Sunday 28th a host of interesting writers and public figures will illuminate, entertain and provoke your thoughts.

Visit the Festival website for full information and to buy tickets and visit our Festival page to buy the books before you go

Books Are My Bag II – a date for your diary


Last year was the inaugural ‘Books Are My Bag’ campaign – a day organised by The Booksellers Association for everyone to have the chance to celebrate bookshops. It was wildly successful with thousands upon thousands of book lovers making a trip to their local bookshop up and down the country. The Saatchi-designed orange bag flooded the streets and sales across the country rose by 18% on the Saturday launch day

It certainly made an impression on Richard Ovenden, Bodley Librarian, with one of my favourite ever tweets about the shop

Richard Ovenden BAMB tweet

So, book lovers, let’s do it all again!

On Saturday October 11th BAMB II is happening.

Fiendish plans are underway to make sure that we play our fullest part here in the shop. The plan is to put on an amazing carnival of bookish loveliness that puts a smile on your face and a book in your bag.

Follow Books Are My Bag on Twitter or their website to keep abreast of news and developments




Great news if you got the grades you required and you are off to Uni – exciting times ahead! If you didn’t get the grades you required don’t panic – there is sensible advice here. Good things can still happen.

We’ve been a University bookseller for over 135 years so we know a thing or two about the student experience. Our ‘student essentials’ page is a great place to start for all your bookish needs, from reading lists to study skills, wise words for young minds to great value textbooks.


New Murakami, Early Opening, Signed Copy to be won!

murakami coverWe are booksellers so we love Haruki Murakami (it seems to be a law of bookselling). Ever since this new novel was published in Japan 18 months agao to scenes reminiscent of The Beatles our bookish senses have been tingling with anticipation.

The wait is virtually over. Tomorrow, Tuesday August 11th, we open the shop at 7.30am to let you (us, really) get your copy early. But wait. Thanks to the largesse of the lovely people at Random House you can have the chance to win a signed 1st edition. All you have to do is visit the shop between 7.30am and 9.00am to be entered into the draw.

If I was you I would heed the timeless advice of Matt Bianco!

See you in the morning Murakami-lovers!


World Humanist Congress 2014


From August 8th – 10th the World Humanist Congress will take place in Oxford. Held every three years the theme of the meeting this year is freedom of thought and expression and the line up of speakers is stellar.

Tickets sold out almost immediately but we are very pleased to be putting on a series of free 20 minute talks in the bookshop over the three days.


We have put together a page for books by the speakers and other relevant titles

You can keep up to date by following #WHC2014 on Twitter or their Facebook page

“The thing about football…

32countriescropped…the important thing about football – is that it is not just about football.” So said Terry Pratchett

Whether you love football or hate it with a passion we have a World Cup promotion aimed fairly and squarely at book lovers.

Ray Mattinson and David Kelly from our Fiction Department have selected an author from each country (or where that hasn’t been possible, a novel set in that country) so every World Cup contender is represented. The titles that feature in each day’s fixtures are then pulled out and displayed every morning.

Ray is shocked to learn that Spain is out!

Ray is shocked to learn that Spain is out!

Ray says “It had been a dream of mine to install a translated fiction section separate from general contemporary fiction here on the ground floor for some time. Having achieved this earlier in the year, it was a natural step to create a ‘World Cup’ fiction display which included fiction from each county involved in the footballing action. We felt that this was the perfect way to join in the spirit of things in a lighthearted and enjoyable way!”

So who is your money on? Will a South American triumph on home soil? Is it time for an Africa winner? Will England disappoint again?

You can see the full listing of titles here

Jabujicaba – A Novel Campaign

JabujicabaWe are very pleased to be supporting the wonderful cause behind the publication of this novel, an eco-thriller set in the heart of Brazil. The paperback edition is available exclusively from the shop with 50% of the royalties going to international charity World Land Trust, to fund the protection of the REGUA Reserve in Brazil’s Atlantic Rainforest. The remaining 50% is divided between the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and Isle of Wight Zoo.



The book is part of a wider campaign to inspire action for the Brazilian Rainforest and its wildlife, by creating positive change. Why? Because rainforests cover less than 2% of the planet’s total surface area, but are home to 50% of the Earth’s plants and animals. If you want to save life on Earth, this is a great place to start.

www.jabujicaba.net_2014-06-04_16-37-36Click on the logo to find out more about the book and the cause, or even better, pop into the shop today and pick up your copy for just £8.99

We are launching the book in the shop on Thursday 12th June at 12 o’clock – you are very welcome to come along. If you can’t make it to the shop to buy the book it is available online here


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.



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!


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!