Dickens and Doyle Wouldn’t Stand for Closing Blackwell’s Portsmouth

Image of Blackwell's Portsmouth courtesy of Google Street View, October 2016.

Following recent news of the proposal to close Blackwell’s Portsmouth, and confirmation from the bookshop’s team last week that ‘negotiations are ongoing’ between Blackwell and the University of Portsmouth, local writer Tom Harris highlights the difference the bookshop and team have made to him as an indie author, and argues we must protect Portsmouth’s literary future as well as our past.

Blackwell’s Portsmouth and the University of Portsmouth are two institutions incredibly close to my heart, but the announcement that the University has made its intentions clear to evict – and with no alternative location yet agreed, to close – Blackwell’s has left me and the local writing community reeling.

For the last two months, I’ve been lost in a medicinal haze following a nasty relapse of degenerative disc disorder. During this time I have written nothing of creative note, but this awful news has compelled me to push my head above my diazepam, pregabalin and tramadol-laced parapet.

Jo West and her team at Blackwell’s are simply incredible.

They have introduced me to so many wonderful people in and around the city, educating and entertaining me along the way. They have supported my own work with enthusiasm and passion, giving a permanent home to my novels and collaborations. I have launched my books at Blackwell’s Portsmouth, introducing friends, family members and colleagues to the wonderful world of book launches and events – all organised in the unique style of Blackwell’s manager Jo West, who has made it part of the bookshop’s daily work to offer active support and promotion to local writers.

To think all this will end when for so many local writers, it’s just getting started; and to think I won’t be able to pay forward the kindness, belief and support Blackwell’s Portsmouth showed to me in the early stages of my writing career, leaves me feeling I’m stood in the path of an oncoming snow plough.

Tom Harris reading at the launch of his book for young adults, The Amber Moon, held at Blackwell’s Portsmouth. Image credit, Kayleigh Rivett, courtesy of Tom Harris.

Losing Jo and Blackwell’s will devastate our local writing community. There is no doubt that Portsmouth will be worse off, losing an asset that has not only raised the profile of the city’s immense literary heritage, but done so much to showcase its current and future potential.

For many local people, Blackwell’s Portsmouth is much more than ‘just a bookshop’ and Jo and her team are more than just the people who work there. Jo West and the team are at the very heart of the thriving local literary community. To lose them and the store makes me feel as saddened and as lost as Watson would if told that he must narrate a story without ever mentioning Holmes.

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle announced the death of Sherlock Holmes – a character conceived and born here in Portsmouth – the nation protested at the passing of the world’s greatest consulting detective, with reports that some even wore black mourning bands to mark his passing.

Now, as we approach the holiday season bringing good will, cheer & merriment to our doorsteps, perhaps Portsmouth’s writers and readers should don similar black bands to mourn the passing of this great local jewel. There is no doubt in my mind that Conan Doyle and Dickens would have taken up the mantle in their day to protest this closure, lobbying all who would listen on what our great city will lose if the proposed closure goes ahead.

History, culture and the arts draw many visitors and tourists to Portsmouth. But as much as we revel in celebrating the city’s notable past, we must remember to embrace, support and understand it in the present. We must support and cherish the institutions and individuals that move the city forward into a future as noteworthy as our past.

Portsmouth needs Jo West and her team. We need Blackwell’s.

As I write this, the local community hold their breath at news of ongoing negotiations to find a new location for the shop. I urge both sides to pause, and to work through every possible option to secure a future for Blackwell’s Portsmouth.

Maybe this Christmas, the people of Portsmouth can communicate what is precious to us – persuade Blackwell’s and the University that ‘value’ must be measured in more than sales – and be heard, so as we tie up our brown paper packages with string we may still hold dear to our favourite things.

Please make your voice heard in support of Jo and her team, by signing the petition, and follow the shop on Facebook and Twitter for updates.