While Carlo was studying for his Cambridge exams at Kheiron, he worked at Blackwell’s Bookshop. He has kindly shared this writing with us.
Blackwell’s of Oxford and J.R.R. Tolkien
The roots of Middle-Earth in libraries and bookshops
The city of Oxford is clearly one of England’s major cultural hubs. The town has developed around its University, founded in the XIII century, which is still Oxford’s main asset. Thousands of students are hosted in 38 colleges within the city centre, and schools and academies all around the world use texts from the Oxford University Press. The Bodleian Library is the second biggest library in the United Kingdom and its archives run for hundreds of meters under the city.
With such a concentration of students, visiting academics and researchers, Oxford is also home for many cultural enterprises, first of all bookshops.
One of Britain’s most famous and typical bookshops is surely Blackwell’s in Broad Street 50. Founded by Benjamin Henry Blackwell in 1879, the original shop could welcome just four persons at once, so that the owner had often to get out to make room for customers. As time went on the bookshop grew both in fame and size, taking up the whole building. The ground floor has still part of the original furniture, and it hosts now modern fiction and children’s departments. There is also a dedicated section for three of Oxford’s most famous writers, Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. On the first floor, there are literature and poetry, on the second floor history and classics. Also located on the second floor, the rare books department contains many precious first editions of ancient and modern texts.
Basil Blackwell, son of Benjamin, worked in the shop for decades and he was the first bookseller to receive knighthood, in 1956. The “Gaffer’s office” is kept today in its original condition and it can be visited within the bookshop. In 1966 Sir Basil decided to expand his shop again, building another floor underneath the grounds of the neighbouring Trinity college. The president of the college, Sir Arthur Norrington, granted the permission to Blackwell, and so it began the construction of the world’s biggest room devoted to bookselling: ten thousand square feet for more than three miles of shelving, the Norrington Room contains a vast collection of non-fiction, scientific and academic texts. The many departments of the room range from science and medicine to politics, law and philosophy. At the entrance, there is a section displaying the most representative books of the last 50 years. There is also a travel department with its own mapping centre.
In addition to bookselling, Blackwell is also active in publishing and it supplies many cultural institutions. In 1915 Benjamin Blackwell printed the poem Goblin Feet, the first publication by J.R.R. Tolkien, at the time still student at the Oxford university where he was afterwards professor of Anglo-Saxon.
Next to the bookshop stands the Weston Library, the modern extension of the Bodleian. The two are connected through an underground passage. Here are kept some of the treasures selected from the archives of the ancient library in a free exhibition. In 2016, an item of great interest has been added to the collection: an annotated map of Middle Earth by J. R. R. Tolkien. It has been found in the rare books department of Blackwell within a first edition of Tolkien’s major work The Lord of the Rings. The map shows in detail the imaginary world built by Tolkien in which his stories are set. The notations contained in this map are greatly valued by Tolkien’s scholars, for they give the chance to have a unique glance at the creative process which brought the author to conceive and set up a detailed and autonomous world such as Middle Earth.
J. R. R. Tolkien’s son, Christopher, has spent years curating and putting in order all the unpublished manuscripts of his father, delivering to the readers the whole lore and mythology behind The Lord of the Rings. In 2016, he has been awarded the Bodleian Medal for this literary and publishing effort, and the library has recently announced an upcoming exhibition and a new volume about Tolkien’s works.
Meanwhile, every year in March the Oxford Literary Festival runs for a week in the courtyard of the Bodleian Library, hosting hundreds of authors from many different countries. Talks and book launches are held every day in the library and in the many college lecture rooms all around the city. Blackwell is the main partner of the Festival, providing books for every single event. In addition to that, Blackwell hosts conferences and book signings all year round.
Known and admired by academics and readers all around the world, Blackwell’s bookshop has become an Oxford’s landmark like the University and the Library. In recent times the company opened several new branches across the United Kingdom and it is also online, granting a complete service up with the times. Anyway, the flagship store in Broad Street still remains the core of Blackwell, taking on the values which inspired its founder: the pleasure to work in education, expertise in each field of knowledge and a great love for books.