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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Family-owned Blackwell’s bookstore put up for sale for the first time

Daniel Moloney reports.

Blackwell’s, the iconic family-owned bookstore, has been put up for sale for the first time in its 143-year history.

The bookseller, founded in Oxford also operates Heffers of Cambridge, as well as shops in London, Edinburgh and Manchester, alongside university campuses sites. 

According to the Guardian, the chain said it was looking for an external investor after a plan to put the business into employee ownership fell through. It said that goal “ultimately proved to be difficult, due in large part to the ongoing uncertainty on the high street caused by Covid-19”.

Driven by a boom in e-commerce, the business has managed to grow sales for the past five years, despite the pandemic. It ended 2021 with a 1.9% increase in revenue year on year. “The sale of Blackwell’s represents a genuinely unique and exciting opportunity for any potential buyer to own a much loved and trusted bookselling brand,” David Prescott, Blackwell’s C.E.Os., commented. “The business has been quietly and successfully transitioning itself in recent years to establish a substantial global online presence alongside a core portfolio of iconic shops.”

Prescott told The Bookseller staff had been briefed ahead of the announcement, but the sale was still at its “early stages” and he would not be drawn on potential buyers. However, potential buyers could include Waterstones, which is owned by New York hedge fund Elliott Advisors. It snapped up rival independent Foyles in 2018 and previously took over smaller booksellers Dillons, Hatchards and Ottakar’s.  According to the Guardian, while such a deal might attract attention from the competition watchdog, the scale of competition from Amazon and WH Smith means it could gain approval.

Blackwell’s owner Julian ‘Toby’ Blackwell said: “I would have loved to have handed over the company to its staff, but I also accept that in order to grow and remain competitive in the future, it is time for new ownership, ideas and investment. I have always stood for innovation and transformation in the constantly changing world of bookselling. I am delighted to have supported, and now see, Blackwell’s become a significant player in online bookselling and to have helped keep alive the concepts of service and expertise so well embodied by our chairman and board and our wonderful staff.”

With its main bookstore in Broad Street, Blackwell’s also launched a bookshop at Westgate in 2017 and also operates a poster shop and music shop in Broad Street. Its flagship store on Broad Street is one of the largest in the world. Its basement, The Norrington Room, contains 3.5km of bookshelves

The iconic Oxford landmark began trading in 1879 and was the first to publish J.R.R Tolkien before he became famous for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Some booksellers have gone on to become well-known writers themselves including children’s murder mystery writer Robin Stevens. Over the years the bookshop has hosted many famous writers and well-known figures, from Oxford’s own Sir Roger Bannister to John Lydon and Muhammad Ali.

Image: Rosewoman / CC BY 2.0

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