Last Friday, I experienced the rare treat of visiting Blackwell’s Broad Street, the Blackwell bookshop chain’s flagship shop in Oxford. It is a bookshop that I know quite well, though it is two or three years since I was last there. It is one of a handful of large world class bookshops in this country – as readers of this blog will know, my own particular favourite is Waterstones Gower Street, but that is partly because it holds strong personal associations for me and is therefore much more of an old friend than Broad Street. Gower Street is like a rather quirky intellectual woman of a certain age, always coming up with racy surprises of which you might not have thought her capable. She’s one of the liberated ‘new women’ of the early twentieth century, as her Arts and Crafts clothing and the pedigree of her creator, Una Dillon, both demonstrate. Broad Street, on the other hand, is the grande dame of British bookshops. She is an eminent Victorian, offspring of the sternly teetotal Benjamin Henry Blackwell, whose fine bookselling tradition was carried on by his son, also Benjamin, and very famous grandson Basil (‘The Gaffer’) who presided over this shop and its sister stores for more than sixty years.
It was not the first of Oxford’s bookshops that I visited on Friday, but, once through its surprisingly modest front door (it could be the entrance to any moderately well-to-do person’s house), I wondered why I had bothered with the others. Here were riches indeed! And cared for by very professional staff who seemed never to intrude on browsers except at that vital moment – which they must have sensed by some kind of invisible booksellers’ radar – when I was stumped and needed help.
I didn’t actually find the exact book that I wanted – I’m not sure that this book even exists, as I was searching by topic rather than title, but I spent an enchanted two hours in the shop nevertheless. I came away with three purchases, but could have splashed out on many more. I was also delighted to see four copies of Almost Love and two of In the Family on the shelves of the crime fiction section. I happen to know from my previous life that the crime fiction buyer in this shop is probably the best in the country, so I am doubly appreciative that he has chosen to stock my books.
Blackwell’s Broad Street also has a great coffee bar in which people may really be seen looking at and talking about the books they have just bought (instead of just reading the paper or examining their shopping); it has also several brilliant, if eclectically-arranged, second-hand sections. If you know Oxford, I am sure that you will have visited this bookshop. If you don’t know it and should ever find yourself in the city, I recommend that you include Broad Street in your itinerary!
6 thoughts on “The ‘grande dame’ of English bookshops!”
Oh my goodness, wouldn’t I love to go there! I haven’t been to Oxford in man a long year, but this sounds like a bookshop worthy of so erudite a city! How thrilling to see your own books there too. I would love to see any book of mine in any bookshop, but to be on such exalted shelves would feel like quite an honour 🙂
I haven’t exaggerated the quality of this shop one jot, Valerie, and I am honoured to have my books on its shelves. You can imagine that seeing them there gave me a real boost! 🙂
One of my very favourite bookshops, and not so far from me. If you go there again – let me know. We could meet in their wonderful coffee shop and chatter for an hour or three.
I’ll remember to let you know, Jo! The coffee shop is wonderful, isn’t it? 🙂
Thank you for these lovely words, Christina – it puts a spring in the step of everyone involved in the shop when we get such lovely feedback. I feel I should be very honest and confess that Richard Reynolds at Heffers, our sister shop in Cambridge, is the doyen of Crime Fiction booksellers. He runs the extraordinary ‘Bodies in the Bookshop’ festival, this year on Sept 23rd http://bodiesinthebookshop.wordpress.com/
Hello, Euan! Lovely to hear from you again. I may have got confused with Heffers and Richard, but yours was the shop that selected ‘Almost Love’ and ‘In the Family’, so full marks! I hope Heffers have them too!
I do really love Broad Street and, had I known you were there I’d have asked to see you. We’ll catch up with each other in due course… we have a date! 🙂