February 3, 2022
UK’s largest independent book chain Blackwell’s up for sale after 143 years
by Nikki Griffiths
Blackwell’s is an institution in the UK. Benjamin Henry Blackwell opened the first family owned bookshop in Oxford to the public in 1849, making it one of Britain’s oldest booksellers.
Benjamin Henry’s son, Basil Blackwell, became the first Blackwell to go to university, joining the family business in 1913 and working on Blackwell’s publishing arm, their first publication coming out in 1879. He oversaw the blossoming business, taking over from his father in 1924. By the 1960s Blackwell’s reputation was affirmed, with more shops opening both on the high street and at university campuses. It also launched the first transactional online bookstore in the UK in 1995. It currently has 18 stores, including its flagship Oxford store as well as shops in London, Edinburgh, and Manchester. Now, after 143 years of trading, the bookselling side of the business is up for sale.
Originally it was hoped that shares would be owned by staff, currently numbering around 350, but despite reporting a 1.9% increase in revenue in 2021, the company cites the uncertainty caused by COVID for this plan becoming unpractical and for the need to seek out a new buyer to secure Blackwells’ future. In 2020 the company had to close five of its university campus branches due to the pandemic. Current owner Julian Blackwell said, as reported by The Bookseller:
“I would have loved to have handed over the company to its staff, 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.”
Blackwell’s sold their publishing arm of the business to John Whiley & Sons in 2006, which saw two members of the Blackwell family leave the business, making Julian, the great grandson of Benjamin Henry the sole family member still involved in running the company. Could it be the family legacy will soon be coming to an end?
Acquisitions and mergers within the bookshop world are nothing new. In 2018, independent bookseller Foyles was bought up by the UK’s largest book chain, Waterstones. At the time, Waterstones’ Managing Director James Daunt hailed the buyout as a stand against online rival Amazon, saying it would make Foyles “stronger and better positioned to protect and champion the pleasures of real bookshops in the face of Amazon’s siren call.”
At the time, on the Foyles/Waterstones merger, a Foyles spokesman said, as reported by The Bookseller:
“We are committed to ensuring the longevity of the Foyles brand and personality. As such the Foyles estate is now being supplied via the Waterstones Hub which allows us to make some much-needed improvements for our customers. As part of this process, we have similarly aligned various other back office systems which has led to a small number of roles at risk for redundancy. We are doing everything we can to find alternative positions for those affected wherever possible. Through these changes we hope to ensure our shops remain vibrant bookshops true to the Foyles brand.”
The acquisition did result in some inevitable lay offs and with Foyles stores implanting a centralised buying system, which has made it harder for all but the biggest and richest of publishers to get their books noticed. The hedge fund owner of Waterstones, Elliott Management, then went on to buy Barnes & Noble.
Who might be interested in acquiring Blackwell’s? For the moment there is no news as to a potential buyer and what the future could hold, with accountancy firm Begbies Traynor handling the sale. David Prescott, Blackwell’s chief executive, said to Sky News:
“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.
“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.”
Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.