~Bibliophilia - it runs in the family~
My uncle and aunt from Australia came to visit family in the UK for a month and my husband and I got 'custody' for several days before being asked to take them back to my parents. My uncle is a strange chap who has been proclaiming the end of the world (in economic terms rather than religious Armageddon) for the past few decades. In his home in Sydney he has a spectacular library room in which he keeps all his economics books and he arrived in the UK with what he described as 'a few feet still to fill'. He proceeded to use up the bulk of his luggage allowance picking up books on his trip.
Oxford marked the half-way point on our journey delivering them from relatives in Bedford back to my parents in Salisbury. I knew Uncle Tony would rail against the academic privilege of the city - that's partly why I took him because I knew it would wind him up. But I also knew that I had a special treat tucked up my sleeve which would absolutely blow his mind. That treat was the main Broad Street building of Blackwell's bookshop and it's underground 'bunker' of books.
I was a student at a college just over the road from Blackwell's for four years and I love this place. Admittedly most of my books were either from their second hand section or were begged, stolen or borrowed from older students. Nonetheless, Blackwell's has had my heart from the day I first found it. From it's origins in Oxford, Blackwell's has expanded out around the city with satellite branches such as the Art and Poster shop on the corner or Broad Street and Turl Street, the Blackwell Music shop and Blackwell Rare Books shop, both also on Broad Street. Expansion continued beyond Oxford and there are now a total of 50 Blackwell stores but none can compare to the original shop where it all started.
From the outside it's hard to imagine what's hidden beyond the shop's historic façade. It looks like it might have a sweet shop or a gentlemen's outfitters full of old chaps with tape measures hanging round their necks but it doesn't look like a world-class bookshop and the home of the Blackwell's empire. What looks from outside like two old big houses is instead a book lover's paradise laid out over several floors and most impressively in the basement. I took my uncle straight to the Norrington Room, the super-bunker basement of knowledge which is several times larger than the rest of the shop. It must surely extend way beyond the boundaries of the main shop, stretching under the gardens and buildings of Trinity College. If someone dropped a bomb on the UK and the Norrington Room survived, we could probably build a new society from the knowledge in the double-storey basement room. (Admittedly with the underground stacks of the Bodleian Library next door we could also have a great historic record too). The Norrington Room also has the distinction of being in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest room selling books, with a special mention of its 3 miles of shelving.
The ground floor is home to most fiction and popular writing as well as the children's section. You'll also find cookbooks near the entrance and fiction organised by genre. I love the cookbook section although I never buy - I just like to be able to check out the pictures, the paper quality, and the range of recipes in a way I can't do on-line. Up the stairs you'll come to a section which houses a large and busy coffee shop. I can't tell you too much about the subjects covered on the upper floors except that the second hand books are on the top floor along with the customer toilets. As I dragged myself up three flights of stairs I wondered if their location was designed to stop tourists dropping by for a pee and then leaving again.
~How I use Blackwells~
These days it's easy to think we don't need book shops any more. Amazon will happily tell us what they think we should read, providing us with recommendations, statistically generated on the basis of what other people who like the books we've bought also chose. Trouble is you can't just wander around Amazon and be inspired - for that I find I need an outstandingly well-stocked book shop.
I'm strictly a ground floor and Norrington Room girl - broadly fiction on the ground floor and non-fiction and academic in the basement. I most often use the basement for travel books since it's impossible to choose a good travel guide without having a flick through the pages, having a chance to check how heavy it is, or to see whether the pictures are inspiring. I also linger in the world writing, checking out all the books about the countries which fascinate me and feed my passion for travel and world history. Mostly these are books I wouldn't find if they weren't sitting on a shelf in front of me.
I am not just a book lover, I'm a very tight-fisted book lover so a trip to Blackwell's means I take a notebook and a pen and I stroll around writing down the names of all the books that take my fancy so I can go away and hunt them down cheaper on-line or swap them on book swapping sites. People like me are awful and are probably contributing to the destruction of fine bookstores like Blackwell's but the place is just SO tempting that I can't buy everything I want and I need to pace it out over the next few months. Part of the joy of reading is hunting down the books - buying books in Blackwell's would be like going to a zoo to shoot the animals. At the end of the day you've got a pile of books (or dead animals) but where's the fun if they're just standing there waiting for you?
~Uncle Tony Goes Over-budget~
After the allotted hour for browsing was over, I was due to meet my uncle at the entrance where my husband and aunt would join us. They'd been off for a lightning tour of the Ashmolean museum whilst uncle went book hunting. Aunt had given him £100 of pocket money and he returned with no books. I thought this odd until we learned he hadn't bought them because he needed more money. They both disappeared back to the basement to get the books after a mini-domestic in the children's fiction section.
In all honesty I think I could have left my uncle in Blackwell's for a month and he wouldn't have got bored. I very rarely go in bookshops these days because most just have the same old stock and I'm rarely surprised. Blackwell's is different. You can't go in and not come out with a pile of books in a bag or a long list to take away and add to your wish list. It's like a cathedral to learning - a place of hushed silence and awe-struck worshippers shuffling through the books looking for knowledge, inspiration or answers. It's about as far from a High Street book shop as you will ever find.