The U.K.'s 120-year-old, family-owned bookstore chain
faces off against Borders.

For generations, academics the world over have flocked to Oxford, seat of the venerable university, and to Blackwell's, revered for the scope of its selection of scholarly books and the helpfulness of its staff. For more than a century, Blackwell's has prided itself on its willingness to deliver any title in print to any destination in the world. Stories abound: of the customer who requested delivery to a remote island in the middle of the Indian Ocean -- which required that a package be thrown out of the window of the plane as it flew over; of books delivered in a taxi to Heathrow airport; of volumes sent by courier to the docks to catch the single annual boat to an island off Madagascar; and of new titles collected throughout the winter for summer delivery above the Arctic Circle.

The sheer volume of inventory in Blackwell's Oxford store has been upstaged in recent years by the offerings of online services, but Blackwell's Online Bookshop (, launched in 1995, provides extensive bibliographic data on 1.5 million titles. Nor has Blackwell's bricks-and-mortar defense line remained solely on Oxford's Broad Street. The family-owned company has expanded to more than 70 locations throughout the U.K. and added to its mix a group of specialty medical bookshops at teaching hospitals and professional bookshops for the business community.

"If Borders g s into
academic bookselling

they won't find it easy."
-Tony Coope,
Blackwell's Deputy Manager

Most recently, Blackwell's surprised the U.K. bookselling community by buying Heffer's, its Cambridge counterpart and competitor and, like Blackwell's, a family-owned concern. As Blackwell's press release described it, "When Nicholas Heffer told Julian Blackwell that Heffer's was being put on the market last year, Julian knew that the match would be perfect.... The two families have already been friends for over a century, sharing ideas and establishing strong links with academic and professional communities."

All very cozy, it seemed, until news hit almost on the heels of Blackwell's acquisition of Heffer's that Borders Books & Music will be opening superstores in both Cambridge and Oxford, the latter store to occupy 26,000 square feet in a prime site just around the corner from Blackwell's main bookshop. And to add injury to insult, Borders plans to compete not just in the general market, but also in the academic market.

"We are not complacent," insisted Beth Jenkins, academic marketing manager for Blackwell's, "but we are not desperately worried. We have spent 120 years building links with universities, getting the right stock and the right staff." The Bookseller agreed that Borders is taking on a formidable opponent, saying, "Blackwell's is the best placed of the competing booksellers to survive and thrive. It has the tradition and the reputation -- which counts for so much-in these two, very specific, locations. It has the credibility within the academic community, and it has years of expertise and experience on its side. Importantly, it also has the opportunity to retrench and consolidate."

Nonetheless, the Bookseller predicted significant fallout. Dillon's, established near Oxford's Broad Street store 10 years ago and transformed into a Waterstone's in 1996, has c xisted with Blackwell's largely because of its profile as a trade bookseller. With a finite amount of business available in the city of Oxford, the bookstore that takes the first misstep will surely be the bookseller that falls.

Blackwell's has appeared sure-footed since its founding in 1879. Established in an 18th-century townhouse by B.H. Blackwell, the original store was a 12'x12' room, whose dimensions are still visible on the carpet of the ground floor of Blackwell's flagship store on 50 Broad Street. It is said that when two customers came into the store, the apprentice had to move into a back room.

Both B.H. Blackwell and his son Basil, who took over the business, were scholars of sorts, which helped the credibility of the burgeoning bookstore. A second room was established in the house for Blackwell's Publishing, which exists today in separate quarters as two distinct imprints, Blackwell Publishing, the more generally academic, and Blackwell Science.

The location of B.H. Blackwell's townhouse proved fortuitous. Situated next to the entrance to the university's Trinity College, in the heart of the city, it was convenient for students and teachers. As the shop flourished, more rooms in the three-story timbered townhouse were relegated to books. Eventually, B.H. Blackwell built his own home and moved out.

Limited to the dimensions of a three-story townhouse, Blackwell's was forced to grow horizontally. The firm acquired property fronting both sides of Broad Street and was able to take advantage of its growing reputation and establish footholds in the general trade. Individual bookshops today are devoted to maps and travel, paperbacks, art books, children's books and, on Holywell Street, music.

But as its core business of academic books expanded, it was clear that Blackwell's had to take a more radical move toward gaining space. As a result, in 1966 an unusual scheme was conceived: creating Blackwell's underground Norrington Room, a book browser's paradise, excavated under the quadrangle of Trinity College and adjacent to the main store. With the addition of two-and-a-half miles of bookshelves in the Norrington Room, Blackwell's gives the visitor on-site access to more than a quarter-million books.

Tony Cooper, deputy manager of the Broad Street store, feels this visible inventory is key to Blackwell's success. Asked if the store had felt the impact of online sales, he sidestepped the issue by saying that many customers come in with a printout and want to examine the book itself. Others call or write, putting their trust in the overnight service throughout the U.K. on which Blackwell's prides itself.

Cooper pointed to a stack of Jiffy bags in a supply room where staffers checked computers as they filled orders. "The post office picks up from Blackwell's at 4 p.m. each day, and if your delivery is at 8 a.m.," he asserted, "it will be there in the morning." It g s without saying that, thanks to the vagaries of the U.S. post office, no U.S. bookstore can make such a claim.

An important outgrowth of the accessible browsing of academic books offered by Blackwell's is the custom of U.K. librarians visiting the bookshop to make selections for the libraries. Cooper noted that most weeks librarians from at least one or two libraries come in and shop the stock. Many are from large university libraries, and their selections might amount to £10,000 ($16,000) or more. Library services manager Allison Bailey arranges the visits, even booking accommodations if necessary. Librarians often stay overnight in Oxford to spend a full day in the store.

So what d s Borders's planned opening by Christmas 2000 portend for Blackwell's? Cooper clearly wanted to answer his American questioner tactfully. "From what we've seen from Borders so far," he commented, alluding to Borders' London store, "if Borders g s into academic bookselling, they won't find it easy. Our staff has been here for 20 to 30 years, and they know their areas."

Blackwell's regularly gets in touch with university teachers to learn of any changes they plan to make in curricula and texts. Blackwell's has long-standing records of the core stock needed and, according to Cooper, the core stock d sn't change greatly.

Regarding competition in the trade arena, Cooper commented that Blackwell's made necessary adjustments on the arrival of Dillon's (now Waterstone's) 10 years ago. Competing with a trade bookseller reinforced Blackwell's commitment to concentrate on its academic offerings. Academic categories (including literature) constitute 80% of Blackwell's sales.

One virtue of Blackwell's focus is that the company d sn't get into the discounting wars of trade retailers. "We don't discount academic books," declared Cooper, although he pointed to a number of incentives that serve as marketing strategies to counter the effects of discounting. One, a booklet of vouchers, offers "pounds off" on the purchase of dictionaries, fiction or computer books when a certain amount has been spent. Another is a guaranteed buy-back of any textbook bought by students.

Then there are some modernization plans that just happened to be on the boards even before the Borders incursion: A new computer system will be up and running in August, doubtless to give Blackwell's even fuller information on its inventory and customers. Two elevators will be installed; customers previously climbed stairs. In particular, Cooper is interested in guiding customers to the store's largely hidden second-hand book section. Most important, perhaps, to the visibility of Blackwell's finest asset are plans to build an entry for direct access from Broad Street to the underground Norrington Room.

"If you build it, they will come." Right now, both Blackwell's and Borders must wonder in what direction such a prophecy might turn.

Martin, a former publishing executive, is a freelance writer who divides her time between Kansas City and Britain.