Closing Blackwell’s Portsmouth: The Real Cost of Cheap Books Online

Reviewer and student Emily Priest investigates the recent announcement that Blackwell and the University of Portsmouth have decided to shut Blackwell’s Portsmouth. Additional reporting by Sarah Cheverton.

Following a period of commercial struggle, the University of Portsmouth and Blackwell have failed to agree on an alternative location for Portsmouth Blackwell’s and as a result, the shop is set to close on 22nd December. The closure will leave Waterstones in Commercial Road as the only dedicated book retailer in the city, and the University of Portsmouth one of only a small number of universities in the country with no academic bookshop.

In addition to its role as the University bookshop, Blackwell’s is known for its high levels of support to the local writing community, as highlighted by an article on S&C this week from Will Sutton, author of the Lawless detective series published by Titan Books.

On Tuesday a leaked statement appearing to be from the University Executive Board seemed to distance the University from the decision, stating that ‘Blackwell’s have decided to close’ and that the ‘decision is outside the control of the University.’

Screenshot of a statement appearing to be from UEB, the University Executive Board, leaked this week.

The full statement reads as follows:

It is with much regret that I have to inform colleagues that Blackwell’s have decided to close their on site bookshop. The university has been in discussion with them over a number of months, but unfortunately they are clear that the current shop is no longer viable and having come to the end of their lease, have decided not to renew it. This decision and its implications have involved much discussion and UEB have been working closely with Blackwell’s to explore whether we can find suitable alternative arrangements so that we can maintain their presence on site.

The challenge they are facing, as with many high street shops, is the very competitive internet pricing of books which students take advantage of and the very low volume of staff footfall and purchases, which together make the current shop unviable.  Unfortunately they have not yet reached a decision on alternative options which we have presented to them including the possibility of a small pop up type retail outlet. They have recently advised their staff that the bookshop will be closing and have started shut down measures.

I thought it would be helpful to advise you of the situation as I realise that this is a shock to many staff and wanted to be clear that this is a decision that is outside the control of the university. However, be assured we are still in discussions with them to see if some form of alternative provision could be put in place.

However, Blackwell’s Portsmouth manager Jo West said the situation leading up to the closure was a little more complex.

‘From our point of view, we have been struggling for a few years and the University has supported us for a couple of years being generous about the rent. But this year they said they wanted some of this site back. They have offered us a few locations around the campus but they have been deemed not viable. They were either too small or had no shop front.

‘I admit that I haven’t been able to make it a sustained business, but the sad thing is that people see Amazon and the internet as their first point of call. There is a need in higher education to promote deep reading of textbooks rather than just what’s online.

‘As far as we are aware we are deemed to close on the 22nd. The decision has been made very quickly. It’s a shame and it is short sighted. They don’t see the value because they can’t quantify it.

A petition created by local writer Matt Wingett has already attracted almost 900 signatures at the time of writing, and is being widely shared online, including by writer Neil Gaiman, who spent a large amount of time in Portsmouth as a child and features the city in some of this early graphic novels. Blackwell manager Jo West was one of the people involved in bringing Neil Gaiman back to Portsmouth in 2013.

Screenshot of tweet sent to Neil Gaiman by local writer Charlotte Comley.

‘Supporting local writers and artists is something that has always been important to me,’ said Jo. ‘We have had book launches here and even small exhibitions. I recognise very much how difficult it can be for upcoming writers to get their work seen and I have had the privilege to help them.

‘It is both overwhelming and sad. I’m so touched by everyone’s support but it hasn’t stopped the closure… [which] will have more of an impact than people may think. The showcase we offer to both the academic and cultural sides of the university, as well as the local community, will be a loss. Regardless, I intend to continue my support of the local community.’

Will Sutton and Diana Bretherick at Lawless book launch at Blackwell’s Portsmouth.

The closure of Blackwell’s Portsmouth will also be a personal loss to Jo.

‘I came to Portsmouth as a student and I started working at Blackwell’s in my first year and I fell in love with it. There is my planning and design here. It’s a part of me.’

S&C contacted Leader of Portsmouth City Council, Donna Jones for comment, as well as Cabinet Member for Culture and Leisure Cllr Linda Symes, and Liberal Democrat spokesperson for culture Cllr Steve Pitt.

At the time of writing we have received no reply from any of the councillors.

However, MP for Portsmouth South Stephen Morgan provided S&C with a statement expressing concern about the closure.

The news that the branch of Blackwell’s in Portsmouth is set to close is disappointing. Our city is rightly proud to be home to a top-ranked university and a thriving literary community. The potential closure of a bookshop threatens not only an important academic service to Portsmouth’s students but also a valuable community resource.

Stephen Morgan, MP for Portsmouth South.

Use It or Lose It? The Real Cost of Cheap Books from Amazon

Bookshops across the country have been placed under pressure as a result of the rise in internet shopping and online giants such as Amazon. In March 2017, the Bookseller Association reported the number of independent bookshops in the UK had fallen for the 11th year in a row, although the rate of closure has slowed.

‘Indie bookshop numbers have almost halved in the past 11 years, according to the figures: in 2005 there were 1,535 independents and in 2017 there were 867, down from 894 in 2016. Thirty-two independents closed in 2016 and a further 16 did not renew their BA membership. However, 21 new indies opened, bringing the year’s net loss to 27.’

In order to retain its student market, Blackwell runs a Student Price Match Guarantee, matching prices at Amazon, Waterstones and WH Smiths. However, with students already generating rising debt levels from tuition fees, many are rejecting buying textbooks through major retailers.

Television and Broadcasting student, Rhiannon Jenkins told S&C, ‘I don’t use [Blackwell’s] at all that much.’

Film Industries, Denis Manu agreed, ‘I would not count myself amongst the people who shop for books at Blackwell’s, I find the books overpriced. I cannot deny it’s convenient placement within the university and their vast collection of academic texts. Having only one book retailer such as Waterstones in all of Portsmouth seems unfair to both regular consumers of books and students.’

Denis admitted that prior to speaking to S&C, ‘I was unware of the price match’.

Other students S&C’s Emily Priest spoke to about the closure expressed strong support for Blackwell’s.

Law student Omar Jose Lm said, ‘I was aware from the first year about the price match and I’d be more content with giving money to a local bookshop as opposed to buying off Amazon and not benefitting the local economy. I used the bookshop from the first year as it always had the books I needed for the course. It’s a massive shame that the university would get rid of such a huge community hub that Blackwell’s is.’

Creative writing students, Benjamin Manning, and Andrew Larder have used Blackwell’s and are surprised by the news of its closure.

‘I hate the idea of Waterstones being the only outlet because it’s so expensive. The price guarantee is awesome and more places should do it,’ said Benjamin.

Andrew said, ‘I used it a lot last term. They have a much wider range than say supermarket top tens and I did not know they price match.’

Most of the students S&C spoke to were unaware of the price match, and several pointed out they would have used the bookshop more had they known.

Statistics quoted by The Bookseller showed that of those who bought new print books in the 2015/16 academic year, 41% did so at one point from a bookshop. A quarter of those that bought from a bookshop did so from a campus bookshop. 72% of students, however, bought online, with the majority of these (70%) buying from Amazon.

Local writers, students and residents continue to hope Blackwell and the University of Portsmouth may find an alternative to closure, as negotiations between the two parties were rumoured to be continuing following the success of the online petition this week.

Photo courtesy of Will Sutton.

Beyond doubt though is the clear power of students as an economic force in the city. A report from the University of Portsmouth published in July 2017 found that the University ‘supported around 5,800 jobs by spending money in the local economy, volunteering for local organisations and working part-time during their studies.’

Should Blackwell’s close, those jobs will no longer include the staff of the city’s only dedicated academic bookseller.

UPDATE 8/12/17

Blackwell’s Portsmouth contacted S&C to say that ‘negotiations are ongoing’ between Blackwell and the University. We will keep following this story, but in the meantime, if you want to see Blackwell’s stay open, find out more and get involved via the links below.

Find out more and get involved

Get down to Blackwell’s Portsmouth, buy some books and show some love to the amazing team.

Bookshop Bliss: How Portsmouth Blackwells Supports Local Writers: local writer Will Sutton on S&C

38 degrees petition: Save Blackwell’s Bookshop, Portsmouth

Support IndieBound: promoting independent bookshops in the UK, which lists Blackwell’s Portsmouth as the city’s only independent bookshop