Blackwell’s Bookshops is a chain with over 30 bookshops in some 25 cities and is still a family-owned business.
It’s classed as an ‘independent’ and the ethos of the company is definitely true to the independent book-selling spirit, as well as to the spirit that first led the Blackwell family to start selling books to students in Oxford in the 1870s.
I started working here 25 years ago, when I was a student myself. I began part-time, two years into my degree, at the busy Back to University period and by Christmas I was hooked on bookselling. When the opportunity arose to go full-time I took it and I’ve been here ever since.
In physical terms, we straddle the academic and non-academic worlds. We aim to be a bookshop for the people of Portsmouth and Southsea, and not just a University bookshop The shop is situated on the edge of the University Quarter and between the three main shopping areas of Gunwharf Quays, central Portsmouth and Southsea. We are the only independent bookshop in Portsmouth and moved into this brand new building in 2004 . We have a lovely big window frontage and most of the internal shelving is low-rise which helps give the shop an open, airy feel. The academic books are mainly around the edge of the shop on the taller shelving units, with everything else in the middle. We don’t have a café but often offer refreshments to our customers.
We’re very fortunate as managers at Blackwell’s to have a largely autonomous role within the branch. There’s very little central stock buying, which means the books we carry can be tailored to our local customers. We have a strong central support structure to ensure we remain commercially driven and profitable, but as a manager I pretty much have free reign in what we keep in stock here, so that our books meet the needs of the University. I believe it’s really important that we serve the wider local community as well. We have a local interest section and a children’s section and actively support local authors. We have a lot of events either launching or celebrating authors, whether they’re academics at the University or people from Portsmouth who’ve written books, including some self-published books.
For example, we were delighted to launch debut novelist Amber Lee Dodd’s We are Giants (Hachette) earlier this year. Amber worked as a bookseller here and has since been celebrated as an Awesome Author by the BBC. Local publisher Life is Amazing has brought a number of 18th & 19th Century Portsmouth–related texts back into print and it has been our privilege to help bring them to a wider audience. We’ve welcomed some big names here, too, hosting Cressida Cowell, Neil Gaiman and Michelle Magorian in the past. This autumn we will be the bookseller for the Isle of Wight Literary Festival and host Andy McNab with the Portsmouth Writers’ Hub.
My decisions about what to stock are driven by many different factors. For the more general offer, I pick up books from reviews, look at nominees for prizes like the Wellcome or Samuel Johnson and personal recommendations count for a lot. Book publishers’ sales reps play an important role in helping me discover what’s new in each subject, and what the general trends are. I really value the conversations I have with them, especially as they will be carrying books that even the academics might not know about yet, or that aren’t going to get reviewed in the newspapers.
I always try to buy with a customer in mind but it is hugely satisfying to sell one’s own favourites. One of my own favourites turned into our bestseller last Christmas: Lars Mytting’s wonderful Norwegian Wood and there can be very few opportunities to chop wood in this city!
Much of the time the starting point for stock decisions will be core course texts and academic reading lists. Beyond that we aim to enhance the range with the newest and most important books in subjects that are strong at Portsmouth, for example Earth or Biomedical sciences, Business and Criminology.
We are finding that academics and students don’t want to use big, traditional textbooks so much these days. Weighty textbooks are highly valued in some subject areas but many students are leaving school having barely used a book during their secondary schooling, with online research being their primary resource. The depth and extent of reading that’s required at University can be quite a shock to students, and deep reading is a skill that often has to be taught these days. In response some academics are setting shorter, quirkier books, not necessarily academic texts, to draw their students into the subject. We sometimes encourage them to include more popular/trade titles and novels in their recommendations, but we’re always careful about what we suggest. We consider ourselves a crucial element in nurturing well-read students and take great care to be trustworthy in our recommendations.
There have been so many other changes during my 25 years. In the past, if an introductory level course had 100 students, and the lecturer set a core book, immediately after the first lecture the shop would be flooded with students wanting a copy and we’d sell a great pile of books from floor to ceiling. No question about it – if the lecturer said they needed the book, they bought the book. It’s so different now. Students think about their research, and how they should go about it, very differently. Books are only one part of the mix – just like at school, they do a lot of their research online and rather than buying a print book, they might access fragments in digital form, or read a copy in the library, either a physical copy or an e-book.
Students have a lot of other expenses these days and they’ll save money wherever they can. We do our best to tackle the issue of expense, offering a Student Price Match Guarantee and both buying and selling second-hand textbooks. The Blackwell Learning app has plenty of free digital content, as well as cross-publisher content. And of course the physical bookshop is no longer the only place students can buy books. Blackwell’s was actually one of the pioneers in selling books online in the UK, unfortunately we no longer dominate the online book market but I think our online offer is one of the best.
It’s always hard to strike a balance between overstocking, and having to make returns, and not having the book on the shelf. If the book isn’t here when customers visit the shop they don’t wait a day or two for it to come into stock, as they would have done in the past. They just buy it online instead. Making the judgement about how many copies to buy in is partly about knowing which academic has set the book, and what they really mean when they say a book is recommended. For some, that just means it goes on a long reading list and never gets mentioned again – I sometimes think the academics just tell publishers that they’re recommending books because they’re worried about having to return them if they don’t. For other academics when they say a book is recommended it means they will return to the book week after week, and will literally wave it in front of students’ noses. If they’re the book-waving sort, we definitely sell more copies! As always, good relationships with individuals can make all the difference.
Academic bookselling is likely to remain challenging. Elsewhere in the trade, it’s very encouraging that bookselling is experiencing something of a resurgence. E-readers aren’t as popular as they were in their early days. I think some people were bought a Kindle or another e-reader because their husband or wife struggled to know what to get them for Christmas, and now they yearn to hold a novel again, especially as publishers have been making such efforts to make their books so attractive. It seems unlikely we’re going to experience the same resurgence in academic bookselling. The generation of students that are at university now are unlikely to have had that same experience with the physical book. Certainly, there are some beautiful textbooks – Lehninger’s Principles of Biochemistry (WHFreeman) or Klein and Philpott’s Earth Materials (CUP) are favourites of mine – but with pressure on costs and shorter print-runs, many publishers are printing books on demand and then the quality definitely drops. Some publishers revert to black and white, even if the original print run was in colour. We are very happy to champion academic books, but generally speaking they’re less desirable objects.
Although academic bookselling is going to continue to be tough, here we try to appeal to all serious book readers, from across the local community. The University is growing all the time – for example a new nursing programme is starting this year, and we have huge numbers of part-time students now – but it’s by diversifying, and by serving the whole community, that we’ll survive and, we hope, thrive.
We spoke to Jo West, the manager of Blackwell’s Portsmouth. Blackwell’s can be contacted at:
Blackwell’s, Cambridge Road, Portsmouth PO1 2EF