|Peter Berry showing how Basil Blackwell (see|
portrait) would whistle downstairs for help.
So I can tell you what a great tour it was without fear that for the time being it will be too crowded when you show up (tour times are at the end of this review).
First, our tour guide, Peter Berry – an official Oxford guide – showed us the original footprint of the Blackwell's second-hand bookshop founded in 1879 by Basil Blackwell's father, Benjamin Henry Blackwell (1849-1924). It is marked on the floor in black.
When more than one customer at a time came into the original shop, says Peter, the piled-up books left no room for Mr. Blackwell. His solution was to retreat through the rear entrance and wait until it became clearer which of the two customers was serious about buying a book.
Blackwell's expanded first by taking over the shop next door.
|The Whistler tube. A photo of the|
Merton crew on which Basil
Blackwell rowed is on the wall.
It was left to Basil Blackwell (1881-1984), Benjamin's son, to turn the company into an empire.
Basil was the first in the family to go to university. He attended Magdalen College School and then Merton College, where rowed for the first eight.
From various accoutrements of his office it is clear he was proud of his rowing days.
|Basil Blackwell's Merton|
College oar as pen.
Benjamin Blackwell died in 1924. Basil Blackwell went to work adding shops, expanding them, and publishing books and journals.
|The Gaffer's fireplace, with Delft|
tiles all round.
Basil Blackwell was called "the Gaffer", an English colloquial reference to someone who is older and is the boss. J. R. R. Tolkien has a character in The Lord of the Rings named Gaffer. The character is probably named after Basil Blackwell because Blackwell was Tolkien's first publisher. They both went to Merton...
|The original two Blackwell's shops.|
The Record-Setting Norrington Room
With nowhere to go to the left or the right (hemmed in by the White Horse on one side and the New Bodleian Library, now called the Weston Library, on the other), Blackwell's was forced to expand to the rear.
|The Gaffer's desk.|
Eventually, Sir Arthur Norrington, President of Trinity College when I was in residence there, negotiated a hugely beneficial deal for both the shop and the College. The Norrington Room is built underneath Trinity College's library – a solution to Blackwell's space needs that provides a healthy source of rental income to Trinity.
The Norrington Room is listed by Guinness Book of Records as the world's largest single room selling books, with 160,000 books for sale on three miles of shelving.
At its peak in perhaps 2002, Blackwell's had 70 bookshops and at least 800 journals.
|The other member of our tour|
checking out the phone system.
Sir Basil Blackwell died in 1984. He is remembered and honored for many causes, mostly public-spirited, that he championed:
- He was the bookseller who helped break the infamous "Ring" that colluded to close off open competition in auctions, "taking bread from the mouths of the widows and orphans" of Oxford scholars.
- He was knighted in 1956 by Queen Elizabeth II, the only bookseller ever to receive that honor.
- That year he was given the honorary Freedom of the City of Oxford.
- In 1959 he was elected to an honorary Fellowship at Merton.
- In 1979 he was awarded a Doctorate of Civil Law honoris causa at the Oxford Encaenia.
- In 1966 he was a prosecution witness in the private prosecution attempt to bar the book Last Exit to Brooklyn from UK publication
|The Sheldonian, viewed from the Gaffer's office.|
Tours are conducted from mid-January through the last Friday in March. They are offered six times per week - Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, at 11 am and 2 pm. The tours meet in the front of the original store, marked out in black on the floor.
More Oxford Bios.