The last king of Blackwell's

Look carefully at the picture above, for it features a little piece of book trade history—and no, it's not Toby Blackwell. Underneath the branches of this very tree, one Sunday afternoon in 1934, Allen Lane first came up with the idea for the paperback.

The picture is taken at the Blackwell family seat, Ossefield, a smallish country house built by Toby's father, Sir Basil, outside Oxford. He was BA president, and he approached his opposite number at the PA, Stanley Unwin, with the revolutionary idea of a joint BA/PA conference, headlined "The New Reading Public". Toby's mum invited all 50 delegates, half publishers and half booksellers, round for tea afterwards. The rest is publishing history.

This year, of course, the wheel has come full circle, and next week sees what in some ways is a revival of the idea of a joint BA/PA conference. If something only a tenth as good as the paperback comes out of it, it will be time well spent.

Toby was only five in 1934 and doesn't remember it at all, but in his father's impressively stocked library he shows me a copy of Virgil signed by all 50 delegates.

The past hangs heavily over Toby, and not least because in this, his 80th year, he is the last member of the famous Blackwell family still involved with the bookseller.

He was the youngest of five children of the scholarly and influential Sir Basil, and something of a wild child in his youth. He was a sporty child—"an active little bugger"—and rowing provided an arena for him to excel at Winchester and then Trinity (Oxford, inevitably). He was "spare" man for the 1951 boat race.

Being the youngest in a big family had a lifelong effect on Toby. "They were all cleverer—it gave me a hang-up so I decided 'I'm not going to take them on academically, I'm going to take them on practically.' You either give up or take them on."

There was never any question that he would go into the family firm, and, after a lengthy induction that included time on the publishing side of the business, he was steered towards the practical side—distribution and dealing with refurbishments. He rapidly discovered that Blackwell's, trading since the 1870s, had become a soft touch.

"I realised we were being ripped off by everybody. I put an electrical job out to tender and the bloke was terribly upset: ‘You put it out for tender—we've done your work for 20 years' and I got it for half price. I suddenly realised it's my family company, my name's above the door, I don't see why these buggers should rip us off."

The business was run by his father and his elder brother, Richard, both publishing and retail sides headquartered in Broad Street. "It was thought at this time that it would probably never make a million pounds in turnover," says Toby.

The book trade then was ordered, collegiate, clubby and stable. "It was quite easy to make a reasonable living—if you'd have thought then of what was going to happen now with the discounting it would have been an unbelievable nightmare."

Toby oversaw 1966's dramatic expansion of the Broad Street flagship in the shape of the 10,000 sq ft Norrington Room. "Every inch of space you can get in the heart of this university is priceless," was Toby's basic brief to the architects, and they came up with an enormous basement room extending under Trinity College next door, "which made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the largest single display of books in the world".

Richard died young in 1980, leaving his shares to his two sons Nigel and Miles; Sir Basil died in 1984.

"The little brother said 'Oh Christ, I'm here on my own'," recalls Toby. He became group chairman, and brought in "some serious help" in the shape of London lawyers and accountants. After years of not paying dividends, in order to hold the share price down and hence keep death duties low, dividends finally started to flow.

Over time serious splits developed between Toby and his nephew, Nigel, who was running the publishing side. Toby's first loyalty was always to the retail side of Blackwell's, despite the publishing side becoming increasingly profitable. These rows rumbled on for years, until they climaxed in 2006, with the publishing side sold to Wiley. Toby's own son, Philip, was caught up in the crossfire, and left the business.

Toby doesn't want to reopen old wounds but at his 80th birthday in January he spoke publicly of his 55 years at Blackwell's and said much of it had been "hell on earth".

After he dies, control of the company will be held by a voting trust which he has left in the hands of two long-term associates, Steven Jeffcott, a tax specialist, and Greg Stonefield, a lawyer. In a prepared statement on the future of Blackwell's Toby says: "This trust has been most thoroughly drawn up so that it will be impervious to any attempted interference by my family."

In the same statement—the first line of which reads "I am as loyal to Blackwell's as a man can possibly be"—he also says he believes the two remaining divisions of Blackwell's, library supply and UK retail, are big and specialised enough to survive and be profitable as a standalone company, and that it should stay a private firm.

"You have a thing in private companies: family are too busy or incapable of having all the skills to do it, so you bring people in. Almost always they begin to think ‘whoopee, this is my toy, we're smart, we'll have a go at Waterstone's, have a go at Borders.' Wrong, no way, this is disastrous: we cannot compete either with the skills or the volume or the money of those guys. People come in, it's happened time and time again, and they start to confuse management with ownership. They think they own it."

The name matters
In a few years there will be no direct family involvement. Can it ever really be the same? "Yes." Toby is definite. "It's the spirit. The name is bigger than the family, it's the name that matters."
Accordingly, he has given £5m to the Bodleian Library to build a Blackwell gallery next door to Blackwell's Broad Street flagship. It will put on permanent display treasures that have been hidden away in the Bodleian archive. One such gem is the map Christopher Columbus drew up when he went to the King of Spain to raise funds for his Atlantic expedition, a business pitch that led to the discovery of America. Toby has visions of hordes of tourists pouring into the bookshop after a visit to the exhibition.

Toby's watchwords are "shared destiny, lifetime partnerships"—borrowed from Unipart's John Neill—and he sees Blackwell's links with universities as vital: Broad Street in Oxford, Heffers in Cambridge, the former James Thin shop in Edinburgh, plus the library supply side.

"We can say to the universities we are a private company, we're going to stay a private company, no one is ever going to take us over, you are here for the long term, and so are we. I think there is a huge amount of mileage in that. If we can't cash in and sell some books with our name and those contacts then I'm a Dutchman."

Any regrets? "I was bloody lucky— it's been great fun—but we should've started paying a dividend earlier. I spent 35 years worrying about money every day of my life."