Blackwell 

If you are a book lover, as you step over the threshold of Blackwell’s in Oxford, you might be forgiven for wondering if you have suddenly been fatally struck by a falling piece of masonry or perhaps been the victim of a random act of drive-by shooting. You will not have felt the blow nor heard the shot, but you will have slipped from this world to the next. For what happens as you step inside the shop must be the nearest thing to entering the pearly gates and crossing the threshold of heaven that any bibliophile is likely to experience on Earth.

This is not a bookshop; this is a book paradise. It invites us, in a rather understated way, ‘to browse one of the finest bookshops in the world.’ Leaving room for doubt is understandably English, but disingenuous nonetheless. The scale, the breadth, the depth and the sheer overpowering heft of Blackwell’s places it at the top of the list. As well as what appears to be every book on every subject ever written, you can buy such esoteric delights as Harry Potter translated into Ancient Greek and a set of Scrabble for playing in Latin.

But, in addition to well-stocked shelves, you are also offered provenance. There are photos, mementos and quotes sprinkled around the walls of the shop. Discretely placed, so as to be stumbled upon rather than tripped over, you will find a photograph of a sitting US president walking outside the shop carrying a Blackwell’s bag of books; you will, if you look for it, find the 1993 Royal Warrant issued by the Lord Chamberlain, decreeing that Blackwell’s is the Queen’s bookseller; close by you will find one of the original bookshelves from the much smaller 1879 shop as well as paintings of dons and students poring over new books, and autographed photos of grateful authors thanking the shop staff for their care and attention during signings. The shop even figures in the books that it sells and quotations from several novels including Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited adorn the walls.

And just when you thought you might be in a really good, book shop, but a book shop nevertheless, you descend the stairs and find yourself in the underground vault that is the Norrington Room. This, like the treasure chamber of an Egyptian king undisturbed by grave robbers, reveals itself to be full—on around 5 kilometres of shelving there are more than 160,000 books for this is the largest single book room in Europe.   But where exactly are you? Without realising it you have slipped beneath the quad of Trinity College and indeed the room was named after Sir Arthur Norrington, the publisher and President of Trinity College when the room was opened after it was excavated in 1966.

Lest I appear to be overly effusive about this corner of Oxford, let me highlight one thing—the strange case of the missing apostrophe. Most bookshelves will have a corner devoted to poetry; Westminster Abbey has a Poets’ Corner where the mortal remains of several of our greatest writers are interred, such as Chaucer, Tennyson, Dickens and Hardy. Blackwell’s has a cosy nook on the first floor where all its poetry books are shelved around an old marble fireplace in a small hexagonal room. The sign above the entrance reads, ‘Poet s Corner.’ Now, I checked the other side of the hanging sign in case this was merely a typo, but on the reverse was the same un-apostrophised declaration. I looked around the shelves and all the other apostrophes were present and correct. ‘Milton’s Selected Poetry and Prose’ was there, as were numerous editions of ‘Everyman’s Poetry.’ I even checked around the shelves of the adjacent department of Language and Literature and there was no sign of the missing punctuation mark. I flicked through a few books and, with the exception of course of William Faulkner, all seemed to have the requisite number of apostrophes. Quite where the punctuation had gone was a mystery.

The fact that there is a space might suggest that one was intended, but you can never be sure, even though Blackwell’s has been careful with its own apostrophe.   Unlike Harrods and Boots and Selfridges, who have over the years dispensed with such titular punctuation, Blackwell’s still has its.

Despite my fully paid up membership of the apostrophe police, I decided I would turn a blind eye on this occasion. What might be a grammatical lapse, may in fact be a deliberate spiritual attempt to introduce an imperfection into an otherwise perfect order, in deference to the unique perfection of God. Or it may even be nothing more that an elaborate ruse to make people like me write about the shop. But, that would never work, would it?

© Allan Gaw 2014

This is an extract from my newly published book, ‘Tales from an Oxford Bench’ now available for Kindle download from amazon.

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Also available on kindle:

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