Blackwell’s bookshop is like meeting a familiar face in a crowded street
There, in the Broad, within whose booky house
Half England’s scholars nibble books or browse.
Where’er they wander blessed fortune theirs:
Books to the ceiling, other books upstairs;
Books, doubtless, in the cellar and behind
Romantic bays, where iron ladders wind.
It doesn’t matter where I go in the world, stepping into a bookshop is like meeting a familiar face in a crowded street. Even in the furthest places, I understand the currency of book browsing, the etiquette of printed words, and the magic of being surrounded by stories, so when my husband and I moved from Canada to Oxford almost four years ago, I immediately fell in love with Blackwell’s bookshop.
Blackwell’s first opened in 1879 and is still in the hands of the Blackwell family—something that in my mind adds to its charm and allure (perhaps it’s the millennial in me, but I do love things that are immersed in locality). Quite unassuming from the outside, Blackwell’s is a veritable maze of rooms and floors that keep going even when you think the building couldn’t possibly hold any more—it’s bigger on the inside! Equipped with a coffee shop on the first floor and lots of places to tuck away, I never go in without at least an hour to spare.
When fellow book enthusiasts come to visit, I always bring them to Blackwell’s and watch their faces light up as they see just how vast the shop is. “There’s more?” is a common question, but though the bookshop seems to go on forever, it still maintains a cozy, comforting atmosphere with every last nook and cranny crammed with another story ready to be picked up and loved. There are even handwritten notes hanging on shelves recommending certain books—staff members’ dearest recommendations and suggestions for a browser’s next literary escape.
In 1966, the Norrington Room was opened in the basement of the bookshop—extending partially beneath Trinity College. Its five kilometers of shelving take up 10,000 square feet, and the space holds the Guinness World Record for the largest single room selling books. I venture down on occasion to browse theology, psychology, and nature-related titles, but generally find myself on the ground floor, firmly planted between the science fiction / fantasy shelves and the children’s section, occasionally crossing over to the modern literature area (I’m clearly a creature of habit).
Being an Oxford bookshop, Blackwell’s truly reflects the mystery of its birthplace—encompassing so much of what I have come to love about this academic city. Oxford is often described as having another dimension behind all the doors and gates closed to the public, but Blackwell’s flings its little doors open wide and invites anyone who passes by to discover its bookish heart.
In saying all of this, it is difficult to find words to describe exactly the feeling of being in a bookshop. I can describe the dimensions of the physical space, the beckoning rooms lined with shelves upon shelves of collected words, the tangy scent of new ink between beautifully displayed cover pages, and the hush of fellow book-browsers quietly discovering inspiration, but do those things amount to the feeling of being somewhere so alive with potential discovery and inspiration? Somewhere that holds knowledge, insight, and dreams in equal measure? No, words cannot do that. One must experience it. That is the magic of a bookshop.
This post was written by Carley Lee who describes herself as an over thinker