One of the UK’s most historic booksellers is up for sale for the first time in its 143-year history. Blackwell’s of Oxford, which operates 18 shops as well as a website, has always been in the Blackwell family, but now its owner Julian (Toby) Blackwell has decided to sell. “I would have loved to have handed over the company to its staff,” he said. “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.”
The retailer ended 2021 with a 1.9% increase in revenue, despite the pandemic. It was attempting to move the company towards employee ownership, but the uncertainty posed by the pandemic made this difficult.
Blackwell’s CEO David Prescott said: “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. 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.”
Those iconic shops include the celebrated Oxford Broad Street store, whose basement Norrington Room – named after Sir Arthur Norrington, president of Trinity College at the time – boasts some 3.5km of shelving. The retailer also owns Heffers in Cambridge.
Blackwells was the first to publish JRR Tolkien. Before he became famous for Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the bookseller published children’s poem Goblin’s Feet.
Prospective buyers for the retailer include Waterstones, which is owned by the aggressive New York hedge fund Elliott Advisors.
Waterstones bought up rival independent Foyles in 2018 and previously took over booksellers Dillons, Hatchards and Ottakar’s. Whether a bid by Waterstones would trigger a referral to the Monopoly and Mergers Commission remains to be seen.
Prescott concludes: “We hope that a new owner and investment will help us to secure a long term future for Blackwell’s and its booksellers for many years to come. As we look to start a new chapter for the company, I’d likely to publicly thank Toby for his support and commitment over many, many years. Without him, Blackwell’s simply wouldn’t be here today.”
Blackwell’s sale is being handled by Begbies Traynor Group Advistory.