On January 1st 1879, Benjamin Henry Blackwell opened the doors of a bookshop on Oxford’s Broad Street for the first time.
From a tiny room of just fourteen feet square the business has grown — both in terms of the size of the original shop, and also with new shops throughout the country and customers across the globe.
To learn more about the history of the company see our timeline.
2019 is a year of celebration for us, we hope that you will enjoy being part of it.
For any business to exist for 140 years is worthy of celebration. For Blackwell’s it is testament to the passion of our booksellers, the loyalty of our customers, the cooperation of the publishers and authors that we work with, and the enduring support of Toby Blackwell. David Prescott, CEO
As part of the celebrations this year our booksellers (and a few authors) have selected 140 books to represent each year of Blackwell’s existence.
1879 Genius: Einstein — His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson
The book representing 1879 is Walter Isaacson’s biography of Albert Einstein. Einstein was born in 1879, he visited Oxford in 1931 to receive an Honorary degree and whilst in the city he delivered three lectures (it is not known if he popped into the shop). The blackboard used in one of the lectures is now on display at the Museum of the History of Science, immediately across Broad Street from the shop. A second blackboard was given to the Museum but, and don’t laugh, it was wiped clean by a well-intentioned cleaner.
1880 Middlemarch by George Eliot
Mary Anne Evans, better known to the world by her pen name George Eliot, died in 1880. Middlemarch, her novel from 1871, was described by Martin Amis as the greatest novel in English literature, and Virginia Wolf said it is ‘one of the few English novels for grown up people’. Judging by the support it received from our booksellers, they may not have been exaggerating.
1881 The World of Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
Perhaps the most quintessentially English author, Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was born this year. Beloved by many of our booksellers his creation of Jeeves and Wooster mean that we are forever in his debt. If you have never read him we believe that The World of Jeeves omnibus is a fine place to start, containing Carry On, Jeeves, The Inimitable Jeeves, Very Good, Jeeves and the short stories ‘Jeeves Makes an Omelette’ and ‘Jeeves and the Greasy Bird’.
1882 A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
The year of the first production in English of A Doll’s House The play was championed in our vote by the magnificent booksellers at our shop at the Wellcome Collection in London. It truly was a work of art ahead of its time, most significantly in the way that Ibsen questioned the traditional roles of men and women and the institution of marriage.
1883 Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
This childhood favourite of many of our booksellers was first published in 1883 — it had, as was common at the time, been serialised since 1881. Treasure Island remains a barnstorming tale of “buccaneers and buried gold” that, to this day, instills a love of reading in countless children. Something that warms our hearts.
1884 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn” Ernest Hemingway
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was actually published in the UK (by Chatto & Windus) before the US, in December 1884. The oft-banned novel explores themes of race and identity in the deep South of America. Notable for writing in the vernacular it has been as controversial as it has been influential.
1885 War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
1885 Saw the first translation of Tolstoy’s magnum opus, War and Peace, into English. It has become a byword for long, challenging, daunting books. Should you read it? Yes, yes, yes. It is neither as long or as daunting as some would make you believe and the enjoyment and satisfaction in reading it are immense.
War and Peace changed people’s perception of the conditions endured by civilians during war. I like it because it is character driven and no one person is the “hero”. Amanda Beecham, Blackwell’s Bristol bookseller
1886 The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
The second appearance for Robert Louis Stevenson — in part due to the passion of our booksellers in Edinburgh. Apparently written after he had a nightmare, this short, allegorical novel was sold as a ‘penny dreadful’ on publication. This does the book a disservice — there is significant literary merit on show here. The dual nature of the main character is obvious, that Stevenson weaves dualities of society into the story raises The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde well above pulp fiction.
1887 A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle
The importance of the inaugural Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet cannot be underestimated. More of a novel than his later work, this epic adventure spans decades, generations and the Atlantic. Over the years this has been adapted numerous times, notably By Neil Gaiman with A Study in Emerald and the BBC with Steven Moffat’s A Study in Pink.
1888 A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear
Edward Lear, best known for his nonsense poetry, died this year. The unadulterated love of words exhibited in A Book of Nonsense is still a joy to this day. He was not the first to use nonsense literature but there is no doubt that he is most associated with it. Lear’s birthday, 12th May, is now celebrated as International Owl and Pussycat Day.