the bookstore turned upside-down


An article in yesterday’sĀ Observer reportsĀ that Blackwell’s, the chain bookstore that has become a mainstay of university campuses, is currently on a roll, thanks to its decision to sell more general-interest books. Sales overall are up 17%, and ‘against flatlining demand for academic titles, sales in its campus stores are up 4%’. The chief executive says that the famous Oxford branch is so closely linked to the University that non-scholarly readers are put off: ‘We are seen to be gown more than town and don’t want that to be the case’.

Which makes it all the more weird and wonderful that the Cambridge branch of Blackwell’s, Heffers, has just made a move in completely the opposite direction. For years now, most of the academic stock has been consigned to the basement, making room for glitzy money-spinners (cookery books, travel guides, celebrity memoirs) on the ground floor. But a month or so ago there was an amazing shift, as the academic books came upstairs. Now a casual browser has to steer their way past Classics, Anthropology, Religion and History (not to mention an amazing second-hand stock) before they can descend to Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson. It looks like a university bookshop should; it makes you feel ill-read and excited to start thinking new thoughts. More than that, it makes you aware of how spatial organisation encodes values and ideologies. It’s easier to be dumb in a bookstore that’s out for a quick buck.

What can possibly explain this transformation, which pushes so forcefully against the grain? I can’t imagine, but I hope it will endure, and even turn a profit.

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