On the 1st of June, the day thousands of pupils returned to school as part of the government’s plan to end lockdown, I received a call from my manager. As a bookseller with Blackwell’s, I had been glad when we shut our doors in March to protect the health of our staff and customers. I imagined the call might be to say when I would be taken off furlough for my branch’s re-opening. Instead, my manager told me that our shop was going to stay shut permanently.
In total, five Blackwell’s branches across the UK will never return from pandemic lockdown. A further six members of staff at the company’s base in Oxford have also been made redundant. Booksellers and other staff with centuries of combined experience have been cast loose on the stormy seas of a job market decimated by Covid-19 and the recession it is bringing to the British economy.
It is unclear whether this decision was prompted, or just accelerated, by the extraordinary global situation. Blackwell’s closed its Oxford Brookes campus shop in November 2019, before most of us had heard the word ‘coronavirus’. After buying up local rivals in the 1990s, a business coach asked newly acquired staff to come up with a one-sentence vision for the company. One colleague’s suggestion of ‘being the best bookshop in the world’ was gently corrected - Blackwell’s wanted to be the best academic bookshop in the world. (Incidentally, that colleague was let go this week with the closure of the shop they had worked in since long before Blackwell’s acquired it). With the recent shedding of the Oxford Brookes shop, followed by the five academic-oriented branches this week, perhaps the company’s new strategy is the reverse of that unwise self-pigeonholing of past decades.
It is disappointing that we staff who have been most affected by these decisions were not privy to this strategy, nor has there been any process of consultation. Since selling the publishing branch of the business for over half a billion pounds in 2006, Toby Blackwell has professed his hope that Blackwell’s bookshops will transition to a John Lewis-inspired employee partnership model after reaching consistent profitability. In the meantime, frontline booksellers, goods-in staff, accountants, and others have had little say or insight into the direction the company is taking. I have often felt that the bosses in Oxford didn’t realise how much knowledge, insight, and experience they had on their hands in the staff at my distant branch. Now we have been let go, and it is too late to give us the role we deserved in steering the business into the black. It strikes me that for an employee-led partnership model to be a success, the employees who will take over should be the ones to reach the profitability conditions to make that happen.
The Blackwell family, still owners of the business, have appeared on the Sunday Times rich list with wealth counted in the hundreds of millions. That fortune has been built up for them by 141 years of hard work by the staff employed by them and their ancestors from whom they inherited the company. Now some of those staff, several of whom have worked for Blackwell’s for decades, are facing the consequences of decisions in which they had no say. Some of those staff are in their 50s and 60s and, after a lifetime of very low pay, have little financial security.
At the end of the day, there are several places we could point the finger. Toby Blackwell and other Blackwell’s bosses. Tim Waterstone and James Daunt. Landlords. Jeff Bezos. Rishi Sunak. Publishers and their unfavourable terms, and authors who tweet links to their books on Amazon. Or just the changing preferences of the customer base. But it is not the fault of the brilliant, hardworking, knowledgeable, experienced, and good-hearted members of staff who have lost their livelihoods this week. If you find a CV in your inbox in the coming weeks and months, listing Blackwell’s (and perhaps not much else), I am confident you’ve got a good applicant. Give them a call.