Interview with a Bookstore: Blackwell’s Bookshop
Operating Continuously since the 19th Century
When Benjamin Henry Blackwell opened the doors to Blackwell’s on 1st January 1879, books were firmly in his blood. His father, Benjamin Harris Blackwell was a librarian and had been heavily involved in the Temperance Society. The society promoted self-education and encouraged reading as well as religion. Originally, after he had spent some years being apprenticed to a local bookseller, he had hopes of becoming a librarian like his father, but after being turned down for the post of City Librarian for Cardiff he decided to open a shop of his own.
What's your favorite section of the store?
Rebecca MacAlister (Manager): The poetry corner. It is situated in a small nook on the first floor and has some of the original bookcases from when the shop opened in 1879. It also has the doorway to the “Gaffers Office” in it, which was the office of Basil Blackwell, kept in its original state. Basil Blackwell took over from his father and for over 60 years he oversaw the growth of a bookselling empire
If you had infinite space what would you add?
Zool Verjee (Sales Development Manager): A bespoke “theatre-style” author events space which would mean we could run events without endless moving of tables, getting out of chairs, and then putting it all back together again at the end of the evening! However, we still manage to hold a yearly theatre production (for an eight-week run) every year down in the Norrington room.
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
David Kelly (Sales Manager): An outstanding range and knowledgeable booksellers with varied expertise. We have over 125,000 thousand titles in stock and Booksellers who have worked here from one day to 47 years! It’s also worth mentioning our unbelievable events programme: we hold over 300 events, which includes signings, talks, and readings every year.
Who's your favorite regular?
Rebecca: The philosopher Nigel Warburton has to be one of the shop’s best customers. He is often here buying books for friends and family, can be seen here running our regular monthly event “Philosophy in a Bookshop,” and is just truly one of our shop’s best friends!
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
Rebecca: Last year we had the President of the Dominican Republic drop into the shop with his wife and security team. As they were still shopping at the time we normally close, a few of us stayed on to continue to serve them. By 8 p.m. we were popping out to get food and coffees for him as he was still shopping! He did end up spending quite a lot and he and his people were just really lovely!
What’s your earliest/best memory about visiting a bookstore as a child?
Nicky James (Customer Service Manager): As a second generation bookseller, tidying the Garfield books in my parents’ bookshop in Canberra, Australia at the tender age of five.
Zool: Knights Bookshop in Abingdon (doesn’t exist any more sadly)—there really was no greater treat than being able to choose a book to buy and taking it home in its orange paper bag!
If you weren’t running or working at a bookstore, what would you be doing?
Being Miserable or a hired assassin (the one question we all agreed on!).
What’s been the biggest surprise about running a bookstore?
Every day we are surprised by the wonderful new books and authors in the boxes we unpack. Working in a bookshop can be like opening presents on Christmas day!
SLIDESHOW: Blackwell’s Staff Recommendations