The Book Trade

Bookselling before the Internet

It is so easy to forget that there was bookselling going on before the Internet Age. For you nostalgic delectation here is a small insight into how it was done – STOCK CARDS!


Stock Card

We had boxes and boxes of these in every department and would use them to look up whether we stocked a book and also to place orders.

It was a simpler time :)

You can see from this card that we sold 362 copies of this Penguin edition Propertius: The Poems (the reorder quantities continue on the back of the card), it went into a reprint in November 1989 and that we initially subscribed 80 copies!

Our world has changed…

Something for the penultimate Christmas shopping weekend?

Eek! Time seems to have turned from a trot into a gallop. To give you a bit of help in seeing what appeals this Christmas here is a quick rundown of the books, DVDs, games & other things that we think will appeal to you. Included are some highlights from both our Music shop and our Art shop…

There’s still time to do your shopping but the tock is ticking. Loudly.

Penny for them?

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last few years, you’ve probably already encountered the strange beast that is the £0.01 book, found almost exclusively the digital world of online retailers.

On the face of it, doesn’t that seem like an excellent notion? Why go all the way to your local bookshop to spend £7.99 on a paperback when you can get one delivered right to your door for the measly sum of one pence (plus £2.70 postage)?

Unfortunately however, books are not supposed to cost one pence. It is simply impossible to produce a printed book for so little. And why is that, I hear you ask? Well that’s convenient, because I’m about to explain…

Pick up the book lying nearest to you. On the front you’ll undoubtedly find the title, and then the author. This just one of the many people who are trying to make a living by producing this book. Turn one or two pages in and you’ll find this:

Have a look. It will say ‘Published by, for example, Oxford University Press’.

The publisher can be considered an umbrella term, covering several people. The editors and editorial assistants who have beaten the author’s raw material into grammatically correct shape. The designers who came up with the cover. The new girl in marketing who wrote the press release and spent days sealing envelopes and sending out review copies.

Further down, you will probably find the words ‘Printed in… by…’ which covers the typesetter, the printer and the paper they used.

And then that’s it – for now. Once the books hit the shelves of shops, a whole new set of people are relying on selling that book in order to earn their living – namely myself, and the likes of me, the booksellers who arrange, display and point you in the direction of that book. And mostly, we do it because we genuinely love the book and think you should read it – not just because we’re trying to extract the 798 extra pennies from your wallet.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that we forsake the second hand book. Some of the most exciting and interesting things can be found among the piles of old and long out-of-print titles that grace most second hand bookshops. But again, I would urge you to go in search of your local second hand bookshop, or indeed your local Oxfam bookshop. In buying from them you may not be supporting publishers or authors, but instead you are supporting your local retailers, and/or a whole myriad of people through the work of a charity.

But even for the most hardened anti-capitalists, there is still another, increasingly forgotten option open to you. Libraries are full of old classics and exciting new reads which can be yours, for two weeks, for absolutely nothing. Also, while you may not paying for these books, when they were bought, they were bought at a fair price.

So what’s my point? I am not saying you should all rush into Blackwell’s (although you’d be most welcome to!) to buy your books, or that you should only buy second hand books, or indeed that you need to buy all your books at all, when there are libraries full of free reading all over the country. However, what I would suggest is that you consider the effort of the many people that made them, and the people that are trying to sell them, or the people who bought them so that you could read them for free. 

The moment your £0.01 book arrives might be exciting… however for most die-hard booklovers, your first step into a room full of books, free or otherwise, is infinitely more thrilling, and full of possibility…






To try out the ultimate literary experience for yourself, why not visit:

Blackwell’s Bookshop

48-51 Broad Street



(second hand books on 3rd Floor)


Albion Beatnik

34 Walton Street




Oxford University Press Bookshop

116-117 High Street




Oxfam Bookshop

56 St. Giles




Or visit:

To find out more about libraries near you.

Some of the bookshops that inspire me

I love Blackwell’s on Broad Street but I am in no way immune to brilliance of other bookshops around the world. Indeed, the best of them give me ideas, inspiration and solace that quality bookshops will be a part of our society for a long time to come.

Bookshops can be brilliant for a variety of reasons – culturally significant; influential for a community; visually stunning; quirky and engaging; compendious; authenticity

So long as a bookshop is world class in one of those areas it has a chance for a long and profitable future – to be at the top of the tree in multiple categories is something that only a few bookshops in the world can aspire to. My hope is that Blackwell’s in Oxford will be one of them.

If we could be an amalgamation of the following great bookshops then an incredibly special place we would be:

To be as culturally significant as City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco; to be as influential for a community as Shakespeare and Co in Paris, to be as visually stunning as El Ateneo in Buenos Aires; to be as quirky and engaging as Barter Books in Alnwick, Northumberland; to be as compendious as Powell’s Books of Oregon and to be as authentic as Hatchards of Piccadilly

City Lights remains true to the principles on which it was founded in 1953 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin  - to be a literary landmark for the alternative culture. ‘Howl’ was published from this shop and their active reading and events programme is infused with the ghost-like presence of Kerouac, Kesey, Cassidy et al

A community influencer need not be solely geographic – Shakespeare and Co has held a place of huge affection in the writing community worldwide. “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise” was the motto by which George Whitman ran the shop, giving a bed for writers who would work in the shop. Whitman and Ferlinghetti were friends who believed that the importance of free-thinking bookshops could not be overstated – both of their shops are beacons to the fact that great bookshops still matter.

There are a number of bookshops that could claim the crown of most visually stunning – El Ateneo Grand Splendid in Buenos Aires, Livraria Lello in Porto and Selexyz in Maastricht are the most commonly cited. Of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder but I would challenge any book-lover not to be blown away by the beautiful bookshop at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy – classical elegance, absolutely scrumptious

Barter Books in Alnwick, Northumberland is famous for a number of things – it is where the original Keep Calm and Carry On poster was found, it is a converted railway shed, it was founded on the concept of book swapping, it has open fires during the winter and a beautiful writers mural As a professional bookseller I wonder how this whole enterprise ever came to pass, as a fervent book and bookshop lover I thank the stars that it has.

If I absolutely had to find a book on the same day high on my list would be Powell’s of Portland, Oregon, veritably a City of Books, with more than a million new and secondhand volumes in stock. Despite the scale it manages to be superbly well connected to the local community and has many passionate booksellers who happily recommend their favourite reads.

The oldest continually trading bookshop in the UK is Hatchards of Piccadilly. Whilst it is now owned by Waterstones it retains it’s characteristic green livery and still feels like an independent. An independent with three royal warrants, mind. It is the favoured bookshop of the aristocracy and if you want to judge the authenticity wander down the street a couple of hundred yards to Waterstones flagship shop that is more than twice the size but half the bookshop

Now I am not given to false modesty – I know that our shop is top notch, but I am also acutely aware that we need to improve all of the time. It is these bookshops, and others like them, that will help to guide and inspire. To those bookshops mentioned I doff my booksellery cap.

If you enjoyed this post then you may like to pop over to our Pinterest board where we are putting together our list of the great bookshops of the world

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I am not (just) a bookseller any more…

I love working in bookselling and feel privileged to have spent most of my career working at Blackwell’s on The Broad. Each year since 1987, when I started working in the book trade, the ‘death of the book’ has been trumpeted loud and clear. Each year the book has survived – sometimes thriving, sometimes taking a flesh wound.

Throughout this time I have seen my primary role (and that of the shop) as selling books. However, this perception has changed over the past year or so. With a ‘perfect storm’ of threats – the rise of Amazon and their ‘selling new books as a marketing tool’ approach, the significant take-up of ebooks, the sharp rise in tuition fees and the general malaise on the Hight Street and a double-dip recession – just selling books is not enough any more.

Now my role is focussed on making you fall in love with us. Yes, our passion for books will be the centrpiece to this, but it has to become a given that we need to offer much more. 

I was very struck by a recent book by economist John Kay called Obliquity; the central premise being that you are sometimes more likely to achieve a goal by taking an indirect path. Hence my commitment to making as many people as possible fall in love with us rather than just trying to sell as many books as possible. This way salvation lies.

The Damascene moment for me was when we agreed to Creation Theatre staging Faustus in the Norrington Room just over a year ago. It was abundantly clear that there were many hurdles to overcome and the success of the venture was by no means guaranteed. But it was ambitious, boy was it ambitious. I loved that fact. I also loved what it did for the shop – the feedback from audience and customers was overwhelmingly positive and it was the start of a relationship with Creation Theatre that is deeply respectful, mutually beneficial and above all fun. From that moment on our ambitions for many of the things that we do in the shop were raised.

Our events programme is undoubtedly the jewel in our ‘more than a bookshop’ crown – the variety and frequency can seem at times mind-boggling, from a sold out Sheldonian for Steven Pinker to our Writers Group and all points in between. Unbeknownst to most of our customers we run a small campus bookshop at Buckingham New University for part of the year and the size and success of our book tent at the Oxford Literary Festival goes from strength to strength (by my calculation it was probably the third busiest bookshop in the country on those nine heady days in March!) Some of the events that we run are not expected to make any reasonable amount of book sales but we see that being an active part of the cultural scene in Oxford as a fundamental responsibility. Barely a day goes by when we do not have some sort of event – maybe a bookstall in a college, an author talk in the evening or a group of visiting librarians who want a tour of the shop.

If you visit the shop you will, no doubt, notice that we are branching out into selling things other than books. This has the potential to be a tricky path to navigate – we must remain recognisably a bookshop – after all it is what our customers know and love us for and what we want to be doing for years to come. However, we are sourcing a range of quality items to complement our book offer. Examples of this are the ‘It’s All Greek’ statuettes that furnish our Classics Dept, top quality leather satchels or our bookish T Shirts from Out of Print.

It never fails to hearten me when I speak to customers; the esteem in which we are held is inspiring. Of course this can be a double-edged sword as expectations are incredibly high which can lead to disappointment when we fall short. We wouldn’t have it any other way – it truly is the customers – you – that allow the shop to hit the high notes that it does. The fact that genuine friendships are made between booksellers and customers is a source of great pride. We love to hear about the books that you are reading and we love to share with you those books that are dear to our hearts. No algorithmic ‘if you loved x you’ll like y’ here. Our aim is to inspire, delight, amaze and excite each and every person that walks through our doors.

Our relationship with other Oxford institutions – the Bodleian, the Story Museum, BookFeast and the Oxford University Alumni Office to name just four are a fantastic source of support and encouragement. We want to have relationships with all sorts of organisations throughout Oxford and will be working ever harder on this over the coming year. And just imagine if Oxford wins the UNESCO World Book Capital 2014 crown – I might just explode.

And not just Oxford institutions – thanks to all forms of Social Media we are building new and exciting relationships with authors, independent publishers, bookshops and book bloggers from around the world. I am seeking out the very best that is happening in the book world and working on bringing it to Oxford. But I am also keenly aware that the heritage and history that has been made inside our shop has been, to a large extent, hidden away from our customers – bringing that out, polishing it up and sharing it with the world is another part of my day job. One of my favourite phrases that we use here is about us being at ‘the cutting edge of tradition’ – we need to be a modern bookshop but we can best be guided in that by what we have achieved in the past 133 years.

I hope that I haven’t been too indulgent here – feel free to get down on bended knee and profess your love or come back to the shop and renew your vows. 

My final word is to quash the rumour that the job title on my business card says ‘Ambassador for Heritage, Tradition and Romance’ – maybe next year?

Hamlet – days until opening night!



Last year, Creation Theatre’s Doctor Faustus, staged in the world-famous Norrington Room here at Blackwell’s in Oxford, wowed audiences with its chilling and thought-provoking depiction of a man so hungry for power that he sells his soul to the devil. It was a production that thousands will never forget.

This year, Creation Theatre are back and have teamed up with The Factory to bring us first Hamlet and then The Odyssey. (For further details, see the section at the end of this piece and keep bang up to date on all the news and gossip by following #Hodyssey on Twitter)

Last week some cast members from The Factory came to see the Norrington Room. The actors explored the geography of the space, working out entrance and exit routes, and musing on the wealth of dramatic potential offered up. They proceeded to do an acoustic check so that they could understand the sonic properties of the room and then there was a photoshoot as well as a filmed trailer.

Many of you know the Norrington Room, I’m sure. It’s worth mentioning, though, that every single day we get new visitors to the bookshop who come and discover the Norrington Room for the first time. There’s an area just at the bottom of the stairs which we call – with colloquial familiarity, ‘The Gun Turret’. I’m not sure who coined the phrase, but it’s been called that for years, due, I’m sure, to the fact that it looks a little like a strategic outpost from where one can oversee and guard the rest of the room. Anyway, upon ‘The Gun Turret’ we often have some of our most eye-catching displays, and if you’re ever the bookseller creating said displays, it is not unusual to hear gasps of awe from behind you as those first-time visitors take in the majesty and scale of the Norrington Room.

The other thing one can often witness is how many visitors’ voices suddenly hush many decibels, in a sort of unconscious mark of respect to the room. This is always interesting – this isn’t a library, we don’t demand silence, and yet more often than not, silence descends!

And then of course, after the gasp, after the silence, a visitor begins to take in all those books. Last time Creation were here, their Stage Manager remarked on what a remarkable theatrical ‘set’ the Norrington Room had proved. If this was a film, then yes, you can imagine it, but in what other theatrical production could you imagine the backdrop of this vast quantity of books?

During the daytime, the Norrington Room is the academic heartland of the bookshop – people browse, amongst other subjects, Politics, Business & Economics, Law, Science, Biology & Medicine, Computing, Philosophy and Religion.

In the evening, magnificent author events often take place here and in March and April, Hamlet and then The Odyssey will ring out amongst those tomes and volumes . . . We would be delighted if you would join us.


5th March – 24th March

A Factory Production

Directed by Tim Carroll

The brainchild of director Tim Carroll, The Factory bring their flagship show to Oxford this spring. So far almost 15,000 audience members have helped create a one-night only, sometimes unexpected and always surprising, interpretation of Hamlet. Now it’s your turn. A rigorous exploration of Shakespeare’s verse combined with The Factory’s spirit of mischief and spontaneous play allow the company to delve into the endless possibilities within Shakespeare’s greatest work.

Note to audience:

Every audience member is asked to bring a random object to be used as a prop during the performance. Everything is welcome, large or small, ordinary or bizarre


The Odyssey

29th March – 28th April

A co-production between Creation and The Factory

Directed by Tim Carroll

The myth of Odysseus’ epic journey was ancient when Homer committed it to writing. Almost three thousand years later the stories still echo through our narrative memory. They are tales of famous heroes and villains; Athena, Zeus and the Cyclops, and those you might not know yet; six-headed Scylla, the whirlpool Charybdis and the lethargic Lotus-Eaters.

The Factory turn their unique spirit of spontaneity, playfulness and imagination to Homer’s epic story this spring. Combining movement, song, text and improvisation, each performance will be an original retelling that recreates the spirit of one of the world’s oldest oral storytelling traditions.


Tickets range from £10 – £29

Book online at

or call our Box Office on 01865 766266


Which authors should have their own ‘day’?

There are a number of authors / books that have their own day of celebration. For example Alice’s Day on 4th July, November 12th is Carl Sagan Day, Tolkien Reading Day is March 25th and, of course, World Book Night is run on Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23rd

First question I have is are there other days that you know of that are dedicated to celebrating an author or specific book?

And the second question is who do think is worthy of such an accolade?

Let us know through the comments – you never know, you may see your suggestion adorning our windows in the future.

Guest blog by Ali Shaw

Ali Shaw is the author of The Girl With The Glass Feet, winner of the 2010 Desmond Elliot Prize. His second novel The Man Who Rained is due out this winter. His blog is, amongst other things, full of weird and wonderful illustrations of creatures, real and imagined.

We are thrilled that he has written this piece for us on writing and place…



Writing a novel is like writing a travel journal.  Places are visited, sights and sounds savoured, bits of conversation jotted down.  The only difference is that the places visited are imaginary, and this is just as true for novelists who write about their home towns and familiar landscapes as it is for those who invent entire countries and worlds.  Either way, a place must be conjured from nothing but neurons, and only afterwards can the correct language be found to convey a sense of it to the reader.  Even if the place described exists in reality, even if an author writes about Oxford Street or Wembley Arena, an imaginary replica must first be built inside the mind of the author and this creation, for all its seeming familiarity, is just as fictional as the planet Tatooine.  Part of the joy of writing is the freedom to explore such an imagined place, to poke through its secrets or wander its vistas.  Part of the joy of reading is the guided tour, the highlights package culled from the writer’s sometimes laborious travels.
For the author, a strange side effect of all this is the way an imagined place and the place in which it was imagined begin to seep into one another.  It would be called madness if it wasn’t already called fiction-writing.  For example, I wrote the final chapter of my novel The Girl with Glass Feet while sitting in one of the stony alcoves of Oxford’s Radcliffe Camera, and now whenever I go near it I picture the ocean, which is where that final chapter takes place.  Another example: I used to work in Blackwell’s Broad Street while writing my book, and I sometimes tried to scribble passages of it during my lunch breaks.  Recently, a visit to the shop saw me drop by the staff room, whereupon I was immediately returned to my main character’s kitchen on a snowy day.  I can assure you there is nothing particularly wintry or culinary about Blackwell’s staff room, but trying to invoke one place in the other has left them muddled together in my mind.
This effect has made me wary of writing about anything gruesome or disturbing in places I am fond of.  I expect it is in part responsible for novelists wishing to remain in their writing rooms to work, so that crime writers, for instance, can walk in their favourite park without curling up into a ball at the sight of a particular flower bed beside which they once penned the details of a gory killing.  On the other hand, such crossover can provide incredible satisfaction.  The day The Girl with Glass Feet was published, I stopped into Blackwell’s and saw the book on display.  It was both surreal and spine-tingling, not least because I knew that some of the places described within had been imagined in that very building.  I expect that as novelists complete further books, their lives and their prose become such a jumble that, looking back, they picture past characters and settings alongside the real people they have met and places they have known, making the fiction a part of the truth and the truth, no doubt, a part of the fiction.

Rising Literary Stars II – Win all the featured books!

This Thursday, 28th July at 7pm we are hosting our second panel discussion featuring some of the most exciting new literary talent around at the moment. At our previous Rising Literary Stars we had Poppy Adams (shortlisted for the Costa 1st Novel 2008 for The Behaviour of Moths), Samantha Harvey (winner of the Betty Trask Prize and AMI Literature award in 2009 for The Wilderness), James Miller (Lost Boys and Sunshine State, one of the Time Out Rising Stars of 2008) and Ali Shaw (winner of the Desmond Elliot Prize, shortlisted for Costa 1st Novel in 2009 for The Girl With the Glass Feet). It was a vibrant, interesting and fun evening.

This time we have a panel that is, perhaps, even more mouth-watering:

John Butler columnist, screenwriter and now novelist. His first novel is Tenderloin a modern take on the coming of age tale. School friends Evan and Milo who head off to San Francisco from Dublin in search of fame and fortune. Things do not necessarily turn out as planned. A wry, comic debut written with assurance and a fresh, exciting perspective.



Rachel Genn uses the story of an Irish labourer in London to explore themes of identity, loneliness and displacement in The Cure Her background as a doctor of neuroscience lends an insight to the human condition that is intriguing but not over-played.



Dan Holloway We have blogged and tweeted a lot about Dan since The Company of Fellows won the poll on this blog for Your Favourite Oxford Novel. But enough about Company, Dan is an extremely versatile writer, currently I am reading ‘Songs From the Other Side of the Wall’ which is more Murukami than Thomas Harris, and is a whirlwind of creativity as blogger, publisher and performer.


Lee Rourke is another favourite of this blog. The Canal, which won the ‘Not the Booker Prize’ in The Guardian last year and is in the process of being turned into a film. It is a book that created a huge stir in our shop and has become one of the books most recommended by our booksellers to customers. Lee is also very active online as contributing editor at 3:AM Magazine, contributor at Scarecrow as well being an essayist, reviewer and literary critic.



Naomi Wood Godless Boys is set in an alternative 1980s England where The Church rules and members of the outlawed Secular Movement are deported to The Island off the North East coast. A parallel world which allows a deft examination of faith, love and power. She is a graduate of the Creative Writing programme at UEA and has been a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress in Washington DC.


Bringing some order and insight to proceedings will be Nicholas Royle – novelist, commissioning editor at Salt Publishing and editor of The Best British Short Stories



***STOP PRESS*** Stuart Evers was due to appear but will now be engaged at a glitzy awards ceremony. We fancy him to win and wish him well!

Massive systemic changes are taking place in publishing and bookselling, and I suspect some of these themes will be touched on during the discussion, but is writing itself changing in a similar fashion? This is a great chance to hear from and ask questions of a clutch of the most talented new wave of published authors in the country.

Reserve a place on the coat tails of five extraordinary new authors as their literary stock will undoubtedly rise and rise and rise. Come along and you will be able say that you were there for the literary equivalent of seeing The Beatles at The Cavern Club in 1961!

Every ticket holder will enter a prize draw to win a copy of each of the books featured on the night. Tickets cost £2, book your place now by popping into the shop or telephoning 01865 333623


Our Recent Managers Conference

About 60 of our shop managers and key central staff met up in Stratford for an overnight stay to talk about the current state of play and what our focus should be over the coming months. It was the first time in five years that we had all met together.

The first presentation was by our Managing Director, David Prescott, and he set the tone perfectly for the whole Conference. He was very realistic about the current state of retail and the book trade (it’s tough out there and unlikely to get any easier) but was very convincing about how we can best help ourselves (put the customer first in all our thinking, take responsibility for the performance of our own shops and give our booksellers a real voice)

It was good to have our Board take a Question and Answer session – the questions from the floor were heartfelt and the frankness of the answers very welcome.

The other sessions in the afternoon were on Putting the Customer first, our Online strategy (exciting stuff to come here) and how to understand our P&Ls (a tiny bit less exciting despite the impassioned delivery from the magnificent Kate)

For the evening we had a short cruise along the Avon (a wee bit dull to be honest, but then again I am spoiled by living in Oxford) and then on to an awards dinner. It is always good to recognise achievement and especially when it is voted on by peers. The winners were:

Shop and Team of the Year: Blackwell’s at the Wellcome Collection – it truly is a fabulous shop and if you are in London well worth a visit
Shop Manager of the Year went to Nigel Cavill at our Exeter branch – so very well deserved
Local Marketing Campaign was won by Broad Street for the Creation ‘Dr Faustus’ campaign – Zool (or ‘The multi-award winning Zool Verjee’ to give him his new title) picking up more hardware
Bookseller of the Year went to Micha Solana from our shop at the Royal Bank of Scotland in Edinburgh – his Franco-Scottish fusion of passion and hard work is proving a heady brew
Publisher of the Year for us was Oxford University Press and they also picked up Rep of the Year in Claire Jeffries

Our Shop of the Year at the Wellcome Collection in London

And so to the bar…jet lag and modesty prevent me from giving a true report on all that went on until the early hours (bung me a tenner and I may suddenly recall something about a manager cuddling a toilet)

Day 2 and everyone was bright eyed and bushy tailed for a session on how to improve Communication (always easier to say than do)

Myself and Ian from our Manchester shop then talked about Social Media and how it can be used to make our bookshops better and get closer to our customers. My focus was on Twitter, Ian talked about their brilliant blog

The one non-Blackwell’s presentation that we had was from the National Literacy Trust, a charity that we have supported in the past and will continue to do so. Some of the statistics presented were jaw-dropping but the work that they do is effective and creative. We must do as much as we can to help them.

David Prescott presenting a cheque to the National Literacy Trust

The final session was on running Events by an impressive panel – Zool from Oxford, James from Edinburgh, Steve from London and David from Cambridge. They talked about the whole gamut of events and fired up everyone in the room.

So, an afternoon, evening and morning in a modest hotel in Stratford…but an invaluable time spent learning and networking. Since the conference ended there has been a palpable upturn in the energy and confidence felt throughout the whole of Blackwell’s. Testament indeed to all those who contributed. Here’s to next year!