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Why you should visit Blackwell’s, Oxford’s most iconic bookshop

Blackwell's Oxford exterior - why you should visit Blackwell's Oxford - One Sweet Rose

For many people, Blackwell’s is synonymous with Oxford. With a rich history plus miles and miles of bookshelves, Blackwell’s is a treasure trove of literary amusement and an absolute must-see for visitors. The iconic Blackwell’s Oxford bookstore is a haven for academics, students, and book lovers alike; even for those who aren’t huge fans of reading, Blackwell’s has the power to inspire anyone to pick up a book and dive in. So, what is it about this bookshop that makes it so special?

Blackwell’s Oxford basement holds a world record

Since its birth, Blackwell’s has grown astronomically. The shop expanded into neighbouring stores (its address is now 48-51 Broad Street), upstairs and even downstairs, creeping beneath its neighbour, Trinity College. This 10,000 square-foot underground space, the Norrington Room, holds 160,000 books on over three miles of shelving and has a Guinness Record for being the largest single room selling books in the world. Down here, you’ll be amazed at what you can find – everything from life sciences and mathematics to gender studies and LGBTQ+. These academic-sounding categories might not sound like somewhere you’d go to find your next good read, but don’t worry; these shelves house both fiction and non-fiction books, including many popular releases.

The Norrington Room - why you should visit Blackwell's Oxford - One Sweet Rose

Blackwell’s has been in Oxford for over 130 years

Founded by Benjamin Henry Blackwell in 1879, Blackwell’s Oxford bookshop began as a dealer of rare and second-hand books. The original shop at 50 Broad Street was tiny – and I mean really tiny – measuring only twelve square feet. In fact, the space was so small that, if there were more than two customers in the shop at the same time, Mr. Blackwell would have to step outside to give them room to browse.

Benjamin Henry’s son, Basil, was the first person in the family to attend university; he received his education at Merton College, Oxford. After briefly working as an apprentice publisher in London, Basil returned to Oxford in 1913 to work alongside his father; he was then given the task of expanding their publishing company, which had been launched in 1879.

Book display - why you should visit Blackwell's Oxford - One Sweet Rose

Many famous authors were involved in Blackwell Publishing at some point: notably, J.R.R. Tolkien, whose first poem, Goblin’s Feet, was published by Blackwell in 1913; and Dorothy L. Sayers, whose first and second poetry collections were released by Blackwell in 1916 and 1918. Additionally, Sayers later worked for Blackwell Publishing as an editorial assistant.

When Benjamin Henry died in 1924, Basil took over the family business; he oversaw the growth of the company for the following sixty years. Now a chain of bookstores across the UK and Europe, Blackwell’s has remained a family-owned business. In Oxford alone, you can find a specialist music bookstore and another that sells just art books and posters; there’s also a Blackwell’s bookshop on Oxford Brookes University campus, as well as the latest addition to the family, which sits in the new Westgate Shopping Centre. Nonetheless, Blackwell’s historic flagship store on Broad Street remains the crown jewel of the collection and is certainly worth a visit.

Blackwell's shop sign - why you should visit Blackwell's Oxford - One Sweet Rose

Blackwell’s hosts lots of bookish events

Blackwell’s Oxford isn’t just an old building full of books; it’s also a central part of Oxford’s bookish community thanks to the the events it frequently hosts. These range from book launches to open mic nights, from author Q&As to improv comedy shows. At an open mic night that I attended, I witnessed some incredible local talent; there was music, spoken word, poetry, and prose readings, and I was able to chat to some of the performers afterwards, too. I also recently went to a launch party, celebrating the release of Daisy Johnson’s debut novel, Everything Under. It was a lovely evening and turned out to be a great way to meet new people and make friends in Oxford’s thriving literary scene. So, if you love literature and you’re looking for something to do while you’re in town, I recommend checking out Blackwell’s events – lots are free to attend!

Daisy Johnson book launch event - why you should visit Blackwell's Oxford - One Sweet Rose

Blackwell’s has something for everyone

In addition to selling books, Blackwell’s Oxford also has a café, as well as a range of gifts and stationery. Here, you can find lots of Oxford-themed bookish souvenirs (think Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland, The Lord of the Rings, etc.). In the Norrington Room, there’s even a whole area dedicated to maps and globes, plus map-related gifts. Fancy a mug with a map of Oxford on it to remember your trip? This is the place to buy one!

Alice in Wonderland books - why you should visit Blackwell's Oxford - One Sweet Rose

Blackwell’s Oxford is home to rare and valuable treasures

The memory of the original Blackwell’s store is still present on the second floor in Blackwell’s Rare Books. Today, it only occupies a small part of the bookstore, but this area of Blackwell’s is rich beyond imagination in treasures such as first editions and signed editions of both old and new books. Some of the rarest, oldest, and most coveted antiquarian books and manuscripts can sell for thousands of pounds! Maybe it’s not where you or I would look for our next great read, but have a peek anyway; you’re likely to see something very special.

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