The Death of a Bookshop – Blackwell’s Portsmouth

Sadly, after much imploring, petitioning and dissent among university and townsfolk alike, today sees the closure of Blackwell’s University Bookshop, Portsmouth.

The shop has been the most extraordinary hub, with writers launching numerous books here, academics and townsfolk alike mingling and sharing ideas, students supported and helped by an extremely dedicated staff and numerous authors coming to give talks about their work. It has been a place of meetings and information exchange, and an increasingly rare thing: an informal face-to-face meeting place where ideas can form and grow in discussion, where friendships and projects have begun. It has seen readings, art, music – and has been one of the major hubs of culture in the town for a fiercely loyal and surprisingly large group.

When I first heard that it was threatened with closure, I started a petition on 38 Degrees imploring the University of Portsmouth and Blackwell UK to think again. It got over a thousand signatures in one weekend. This bookshop was not only loved. It was needed.

As a casualty of the changing nature of information, the closure of Blackwell’s Portsmouth can be regarded in one light as a natural, even inevitable development. But it also shows a lack of understanding and imagination about how to really make it work. Its closure also reflects a wider matter: the disregard of large corporate entities for local communities. Bizarrely, the University has chosen to ignore the value it added to its own reputation and the service it provides its students in its headlong rush to milk money from the site in a more lucrative way. That will be to the University’s lasting shame.

So what really drove the closure of the bookshop?

The reality is that the idea of university died a death in Britain a generation ago. At least, the sort of institution I took my degree at in the early 1990s died a death. Even then, the idea of university was in the process of change, but there was still, in the slightly rarefied atmosphere of the philosophy department at York University where I studied, a sense that a subject had a value beyond its retail price conceived as a commodity. Back then, universities were, in fact, concerned with a wider issue – primarily, western culture, and also, with cultures more generally.

But the idea of the university as the custodian of culture is defunct. And, if you are of the mind that art and culture are byproducts of a successful economy, then you will take the accountant’s view that Blackwell’s University Bookshop’s passing is the natural function of economic Darwinism.

If, however, you place a value on culture beyond that of numbers in a bank account, then the demise of Blackwell’s is a belated weathercock for the way the wind has been blowing for the last thirty years.

Why, then, does this closure matter so much to me? Besides the personal support and purpose I found in the shop, it also strikes me that the closure of a bookshop in a town with high levels of illiteracy is the wrong way to go. Now, only one retail bookshop is left in a city of 200,000 souls, and that is a generalist shop on Commercial Road that piles them high and sells the bestsellers cheap. That is one reason.

But I am also struck by an irony. Thanks to the work of John Pounds, a figure from the 1830s now largely forgotten, the right to a free education in Britain was born in Portsmouth. Pounds believed that education is for everyone, including the poorest – and especially those who could not pay for it. That was a noble cause which eventually spread to the offering of education grants for all who made the grade, so they too could enjoy an elite education no matter what their personal finances. But, the decision to remove degree level grants has enslaved a whole generation with massive debt; the result is that the inevitable logic of economics has led to education being at the vanguard of cultural decline. From a social good, education and culture have been demoted to, simply, goods.

It used to be the case that education and culture were regarded as something more broadly useful to society than being retailed as employability skills, important though they are. It was held that the very nature of what it is to be human could be broadened and made richer through an education that transmitted the values inherent to an enlightened culture, those of understanding others, of creative endeavour, of articulate questioning and challenging of orthodoxy. That used to be the role of the university. There was also a general belief that having people educated in this broader sense spread out as a good to society generally. This belief made the criteria for political and social decisions include aspects of life other than those dictated by basic economics. This view of education was the symptom of a holistic view of society and culture.

Now, however, pure right wing economics are our master.

Some will argue that art and culture are byproducts of civilization – that our ancient forebears in the spare time between hunter-gathering needed something to do with their lives and so created art to while away their hours. Those people imagine that our ancestors, like us, came back from a hard day’s hunting in the savannah, and in the absence of a flatscreen television amused themselves by gawping at the Lascaux cave paintings – square-eyeing away the winter evenings for 20,000 years until their successors could eventually come up with Netflix.

This reductionist view of culture sees art and artistic endeavour as non-essential. It is the epiphenomenon of commerce. Artists and writers and poets and creators exist because they are supported by the real activity of life, which is all hard facts, and especially hard coin.

It is not a view I share. To me, it has become obvious that looking at the general degradation of culture over the last thirty years being spearheaded by universities such as the one in Portsmouth, we are slowly going backward. We are devolving.

There’s no doubt that hunting and gathering enabled early humans to work in co-operative hunting groups; that it led to a particular type of social cohesion in the form of tribes; that it led to the necessity of building an understanding of the world around them – nor that all these are the foundations of modern life. No doubt, all these social behaviours are products of the activity that provided ancient humans with food and fire and safety – activities that would later be labelled economic.

But the ability to progress did not come from the act of hunting alone. Before the act of hunting in groups, someone had the idea that humans could work together, could find a way to trap an animal, could find food by hunting in packs. Every advance in human life is the result of an act of imagination, every advance comes from the visualisation and the discussion of ideas and possibilities. Yes, it is true that groups of creatures other than humans hunt in unison and do not paint cave walls or discuss Sartre over coffee, but none of those animals has the imagination to shape a flint or attach it to a spear, nor possess all the fine gradations and nuances in thinking and language that humans have, that have led to our rise over millennia. Ideas were born and passed from one generation to the next by culture and the spaces in which culture is transmitted, be they caves, temples – or bookshops.

That is why the sacred spaces of ancient cultures are covered in paintings, spells and words. That is why ancient civilizations such as the Babylonians sculpted creatures that were impossible in the real world, but which stepped straight from the imagination. It was not simple superstition expressed in the statues of ancient gods, it was not that artists and thinkers created fancies while the real business of the world continued on despite them. Statues of ancient Gods and the rituals that surrounded them were central to the running of society, to civilization’s understanding of the world that was disseminated through temple rituals. Culture and the transmission of culture is humanity at its greatest. It has precedence over narrow economics.

And so we come to Blackwell’s University Bookshop, Portsmouth, and its closure.

There are arguments that the days of the book are long past. That with the coming of digitization and with the ability of students to access material online, there is little need to produce books. Indeed, books are a terrible waste of resources, and the world is a greener place without all that woodpulp being converted. Think of the environment, we are enjoined. Think of the planet.

But this is to miss the point of the rituals that occurred in this bookshop. Book launches, author talks, informal seminars, discussions, sharing, recommendations are more than stock-in-trade. Bookshops are not only purveyors of books, at least the good ones like Blackwell’s in Portsmouth, aren’t. That good will could have been monetised, but the University wanted the site of the bookshop for another project.

A British university didn’t see the value in keeping its only functioning bookshop open. Let that thought sink in a while. Because it really is as simple as that.

Portsmouth’s Blackwell’s was a space where ideas could be disseminated, beyond the economics-driven imperative of university finances. It drew people to it that were not connected to the university, and they met with students and lecturers and ideas were shared. Culture happened – spontaneously. Blackwell’s, Portsmouth, was, in fact, a means of the transmission of culture just as the sacred spaces once were to our forebears. It was in its modest, modern way, a temple to civilization.

Blackwell’s wasn’t only about commerce. It was about humanity in a wider sense. It was about standing up to the cost-benefit analysis view of life and saying “what we do, what we think, is vital because it is human, despite you” in the face of the machinery of bean-counting that pays lip service to such ideas, but sacrifices culture and ideas to its own calculating god, Mammon.

My call, now, is that in its passing, we continue the rites enacted at Blackwell’s Portsmouth, and work to preserve culture. That we do so, despite the decisions of businesses like Blackwell UK, and the value-free institution that is the University of Portsmouth.

This entry was posted in Opinion and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Death of a Bookshop – Blackwell’s Portsmouth

  1. Broc Silva says:

    Well, I read all of it but, despite being in education, I struggle with the concept of any business running if they’re not making a profit. There is a large well-stocked uni library right round the corner. If students are as skint as me they’ll be in there using the resources rather than spending money on books they can’t afford. The world changes; literacy has taken a different form but you only have to read new grub st (Gissing) or any Dickens to see it’s always been about hard cash. If it wasn’t for loans I wouldn’t be studying anything. The vast majority of academic study is now online, and rightly so. Carrying physical copies of every strand is madness and there is something to be said for environmentalism, although I also prefer a print version.
    My irrelevant opinion is that Blackwells have had their day. People want coffee shops & free wifi, pastries and chocolate cake. I also cannot imagine a worse position for a retail outlet! Where do you park? I mean there isn’t a cheap sports brand shop for at least quarter of a mile and at end o day bruv, books well ain’t cushty innit geez? 😳😀

  2. Matt says:

    Yes, well put, and if you had followed the argument leading up to this closure, you would know that each of the points you raise have already been addressed. The suggested future for the shop was as a hub, that did indeed sell pastries and coffee, that fostered events and encouraged communication, that hired out its space for talks and was a much more flexible business model. Nor was it closed because it was an economic failure, but because a pet project for one of the top names at the university needed a home. I do indeed state in the article that Blackwells died due to a lack of imagination. Ho hum.

  3. Joe Funderburk says:

    The idea of a bookstore/cafe/coffee shop that is a place of culture is certainly valid. There was such a wonderful one in Gainesville Florida. They bought and sold old books. Run by an old couple for decades. I walked the stacks looking at all kinds of books. I educated myself in many ways. Wonderful histories and other books from the humanities that I would never know about from university education. I am really struck by the ignorance of history by this generation. And it is having its impact on present-day politics. BTW, it is my understanding that the idea of a free education came from the founders of the USA (e.g., Jefferson, Franklin), and the need for informed voters in a republic with democratic principles. So, i wondered the comment here that it originated later in England. At any rate, I am really struck by the comments in E O Wilson’s latest book on creativity concerning its evolution in humans. And he states that the reason for its evolution and other capabilities will not be solved by STEM disciplines but will arise out of the humanities. This reasoning certainly gives one pause about current university education curriculum for scientists.

  4. Matt says:

    Hi, thanks for your comment, and welcome, from the other side of The Pond. Yes, I should have put the comment about John Pounds into context. Britain was very late to educating its poor, and because of it a few individuals stepped in to fill the need. John Pounds became a propaganda tool for The Ragged Schools Movement in the UK, which eventually led to the government taking notice of the idea of Universal Education and finally, in 1870, the Elementary Education Act required local councils to provide basic free education to all for those between ages 5 and 12. Britain and its empire was far behind the rest of the world. You can read more about John Pounds here: https://www.mattwingett.com/a-simple-act-of-kindness-can-change-the-world/ And you’re quite right, of course, although I mention the old colonies, the USA got there far ahead of us in the UK.

  5. Patricia Garrett says:

    I’m so disappointed by this closure. I signed the petition and thought for a while that we’d made a difference. My reason for wanting to keep the bookshop open was more personal. A member of staff there, Brian, was my first manager at Chapter & Verse Bookshop after I left university and found my first full-time job. He’s clocked up over 25 years in the booktrade and I wanted to see that continue – that depth of book knowledge and retail experience shouldn’t go to waste. This comment doesn’t add anything to the debate but I just wanted to wish all the staff there well.

  6. Ray Jones says:

    S sadly the demise of local bookshops was born when the book agreement was cancelled and the price of books fell out of the sky. Coupled with the loss of being unable to send back unsold books and the Birth of Amazon who are still giving away books for next to nothing. It is no wonder the industry has been trashed. Some will say it is progress and market forces.
    I see it as a Disaster

  7. Steve Dodd says:

    Thanks for your piece on Blackwells closing. It was a shameful decision. The bookshop team there gave Portsmouth a cultural centre that is irreplaceable. There is a need, and dare I also say, a market, for a lovingly curated bookshop in our city. Combine it with a cafe and locate it somewhere like Albert Road, and it would succeed. Unfortunately, the senior managers of Blackwells and of Portsmouth Uni lack an interest in the cultural life of our city. As you say, those with power at Portsmouth Uni, earmarked Blackwells site for their own self aggrandisement. That the lecturers of the university no longer have a place to launch the books they are employed to write means nothing in comparison.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *