Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Blackwells to the Right of Me, Volley'd and Thunder'd

I have always thought that knowing the history of one's profession is important, and knowing the history of businesses that impact our lives equally so. I don't think one have have any understanding of bookselling without knowing something of Blackwells of Oxford, probably the most successful single bookshop and one of the greatest mid-sized bookselling firms ever. Their publishing arm is not to be overlooked either.

Luckily someone wrote a book about the history of the firm.

There are a number of books about bookselling firms, new and used. Not all are very good, but most give one some insight. Most also are fairly sketchy about the recent past, as many of the principals are still alive and active in the firm. It probably wouldn't do to dwell on the warts too much, especially if the author has close ties to her or her subject.

That said, A. L. P. Norrington wrote a history of Blackwells in 1983 which I think stands up as a very good firm history. The book, "Blackwell's 1879-1979: The History of a Family Firm", is a bit sketchy on the late 60s forward as I noted does happen in some histories. Norrington was on good terms with Blackwells, having worked for the Oxford University Press and later President of Trinity College and Vice-Chancellor of OXford University. In fact, the great underground 10,000 square foot room at Blackwell's flagship shop at 50 Broad Street (actually 48-51 Broad Street). I imagine his interest was on a positive work rather than on a scholarly study of the firm.

What makes this a good book? Well, first, it is about a man as much as a bookshop. Basil Blackwell, the son of the founder, was the guiding light for much of the growth of the firm. A firm but fair leader, a lover of fine printing, and a conservative champion of his profession, Sir Basil (known as the Gaffer) led the growth in the publishing arm of Blackwells, and took over in 1924 after his father's death, staying on 'til his own demise in 1984. His work with the firm make interesting reading, and Norrington is not quite so dry as one might expect.

I believe British authors do a better job discussing the business side of bookselling than Americans do, and this books holds to that tradition.
The book is fairly detailed in the history and operations of the firm, up to the chronological point I mentioned earlier. The overall theme seems to be quality - good books, well made, and sold at a reasonable cost. The firm is noted for attention to the bottom line but not an obsession with it, and Norrington mentions a number of decisions regarding publishing, bookselling and the acquisition of other firms that are done for reasons other than profit, though in most cases profit was made.

I think that is why I like this book so much. It is clear from Norrington and a later derivative work called "Adventurer's All: Tales of Blackwellians" by Rita Ricketts that Blackwells is rather unique. It has grown, but is not into a Borders or Barnes and Noble or Waterstones. It has kept a sense of itself, and members of the firm are aware that this is an important legacy. Other shops I feel share this was well, like Foyles in London, though none with quite the steadiness of Blackwells. It was and remains a model firm for the industry, and back in the day when I worked at Borders here in Ann Arbor the lore had it that the Borders brothers admired Blackwells in Oxford so much they modeled their original concept on it.

Whether that shop legend is true or not, it has the germ of a good idea. Keep an eye on Blackwells, when looking either back or forward. There's much to learn there, from commitment to quality, to growing a firm intelligently, to being a true participating member of a profession. Get Norrington's book, and read it.
All we need beyond that is an update that take us into the 21st century, so see the next chapter.

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