As widely predicted in press reports, Waterstones has bought the small U.K. bookstore chain, Blackwell's. "Funds advised" by Elliott Advisors, Waterstones parent, have enabled the purchase, which the Financial Times predicted to be in the "low, single-digit millions". Since buying Waterstones in 2018, hedge fund manager Elliott has also bought Foyles, as well as Barnes & Noble and Paper Source in the U.S.
The purchase ends 143 years of family ownership of Blackwell's. The chain has 18 academic and general branches, including the flagship shop in Broad Street, Oxford, and Heffers in Cambridge.
Toby Blackwell, Blackwell's outgoing owner and president, had hoped before the pandemic to sell Blackwell's to its staff. He said: "After 143 years of family ownership, finding a new home for our business and our wonderful booksellers, has been an extraordinary challenge. Waterstones have demonstrated in their acquisition of Foyles most recently, that they understand the advantages and benefits of holding diverse iconic bookselling brands in their portfolio. I view them not just as a buyer of the business, but as the right buyer at the right time. This is a positive outcome for Waterstones, Blackwell's and all our customers in the UK and abroad, who will still be able to enjoy the individual nature of what both brands offer.
"I would like to thank our chairman and board and all of our fantastic staff, past and present, for everything they've done to uphold the Blackwell's name over the years. I wish everyone well with this new chapter."
Waterstones managing director James Daunt took on a demanding job in assuming responsibility for Barnes & Noble, and now has a further challenge. Blackwell's does not have a strong record of profitability in recent years, when it has had to adjust to changes in academic purchasing patterns, and when its university campus presence has contracted. In 2021, it reported sales up 1.9%.
Daunt said: "Blackwell's and Heffers are amongst the most illustrious names in bookselling, a legacy for which we have the utmost respect. We greatly look forward to working alongside the booksellers at Blackwell's as we secure the future of these wonderful bookshops and preserve academic bookselling in so many towns and campuses across the U.K."
Paul Best, senior managing director and head of European private equity at Elliott, said: "Waterstones' acquisition of Blackwell's follows our successful investments in Waterstones and Foyles in the U.K. and Barnes & Noble and Paper Source in the US."
Waterstones has won praise for its management of the Foyles merger, and publishers hope that the bookselling model James Daunt has championed, of encouraging stores to maintain their individual identities, will ensure that there continues to be diversity in the locations - Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and London - where Blackwell's has general branches. Nevertheless, there will be sadness in the trade that U.K. bookselling, which once boasted numerous chains with various profiles, now has only two - the other being WH Smith - of significant size.
A version of this story appeared in the U.K. publishing newsletter, BookBrunch.