Blackwell's Rare Bookshop History


Blackwell's began trading on the 1st of January 1879 as a dealer in rare and secondhand books. Benjamin Henry Blackwell traded from a single tiny room which was all but filled by one chair and one customer. How times have changed: that room soon expanded into the main Blackwell's shop at 48-51 Broad Street, which now features inside it the largest room dedicated to bookselling in Europe. B.H. Blackwell issued Catalogue No. 1 upon opening the shop and quickly found buyers among the great and the good of Oxford. Among its many entries were fine books such as Loggan's 'Oxoniana Illustrata' - one of the most expensive of the catalogue's books at £5 - a first edition of Hobbes 'Leviathan' for 18s. and Piranesi's 'Le antichita romane' (1651) in four volumes for £5/10/-.

Sir Basil Blackwell

B.H. Blackwell soon acquired a reputation as a fine bookseller. In 1906, he was a founder member of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association, the oldest professional body of its kind. In 1912 he became its president, a tradition continued by his son, Sir Basil Blackwell, in 1925-26. Sir Basil, who became chairman of Blackwell's in 1924, had a great enthusiasm for fine printing and in 1920 purchased the Shakespeare Head Press. That superb typographer, Bernard Newdigate, produced many beautiful editions for the press, including Chaucer, Froissart, and Spencer, which are now themselves sought after by collectors.

During the following years Blackwell's Rare Books (formerly under the label of Blackwell's Antiquarian Department) occupied different premises in the centre of Oxford and latterly a beautiful manor house at Fyfield, before returning to the main Broad Street shop in 1999. We can still be found here on the second floor, displaying many fine books in collectable condition. Printed catalogues are still produced and sent all over the world, featuring some of the same books once sold by Benjamin Henry and Sir Basil, though they would surely never have dreamt of a presence on the internet.

Blackwell Broad Street in 1920 Blackwell Broad Street in 2010