What Makes Portsmouth Blackwell’s Special? Its Manager, Jo West

Jo West selling books at an event on self-publishing at University of Portsmouth. Photo courtesy of Will Sutton.

S&C contributor and Coordinator of Portsmouth Writers’ Hub, Tessa Ditner, talks to local writers following recent news that Blackwell’s Portsmouth may close on 22nd December. 

I run the Portsmouth Writers’ Hub, a community of writers on the south coast with over 600 members online. Recently, our Facebook group has been shocked by the news that Portsmouth’s Blackwell’s bookshop on Cambridge Road may be closing 

There are three petitions going around the community: one by University staff, one by hub members and a third by writers cycling through the wind and rain between DarkFest events to collect signatures. It might sound bonkers. After all, it is just another book shop. Right?  

The truth is that this isn’t about a bookshop. It is about the woman who runs it: Joanna West. As travel writer, co-founder of S&C and senior university lecturer, Tom Sykes, describes her:

‘Joanna is nothing less than a local hero, she should be given the freedom of the city.’  

Without Jo’s vision it would be much harder for writers in Portsmouth to thrive. This is why: 

Firstly, as author Roz Ryszka-Onions puts it, ‘Jo leaves the doors open for us indie writers. [Blackwell’s is] the only place that stocks my books! Even second-hand bookshops don’t want to be bothered with us, they say things like: ‘I ‘aven’t got the shelf space, luv… sorry.’’

Many writers in our community choose to self-publish. Not all books appeal to the whole country and some books are local and personal or collaborative in nature such as our Portsmouth Fairy Tales for Grown Ups or Dark City: Portsmouth Tales of Haunting or Horror, inspired by the Darkfest festival. Most bookshops turn their nose up at indie books but Jo stocks and sells them without claiming the excessive 50% cut that other bookshops demand for ‘community activity’ titles.  

Joanna also supports bids inviting big name authors to the city, meaning we can bring inspiring writers who have turned writing into a career. For instance, when Cressida Cowell was visiting a school in Portsmouth, I asked her agent to add an hour to her schedule so the writers could ask her for tips. Joanna supported my bid, and ordered Cressida’s books in with less than a week’s notice. It was enough to convince the publishers that it was worth her doing an extra stop in her How To Train Your Dragons tour. We let the writers know and the bookshop filled with young readers (as young as 4!), creative writing students, academics and local writers. Cressida’s advice about sketching the world of your story was brilliant, and she made us laugh when she admitted turning down offers from TV studios as they planned to cast the dragons in her story as accessorised dogs.

Moments like these keep writers writing, keep students forging ahead with creative writing and film degrees, and bind us as a community working on what can otherwise be a lonely vocation.  

As Portsmouth publisher and freelance writer Matt Wingett explains ‘You remove Blackwell’s and you isolate the university. Blackwell’s is a cultural hub.’  

As William Sutton, a Victorian crime novelist published by Titan Books, explains: ‘Jo West has masterminded Portsmouth launch events for all three of my novels. From first conception, through themed nibbles to follow-up sales for months beyond.’

There is nothing more terrifying than your book launch. Will anyone turn up? When I read out my work, will I make a fool out of myself? Jo and her team at Blackwell’s organise friendly book launches for big names, academics and local writers alike. They know how important that moment is in a writers’ life.

Jo also sees the bigger picture. Blackwell’s might be a university bookshop, but sometimes, as is the case with William Sutton for instance, one person is a nationally published, award-winning author, an academic and an enthusiastic locally published short story writer all in one.  

Another way Jo supports the writers is by supporting collaborative events. Writers often perform their work with others, for instance at events like the annual Valentine’s Day Massacre that sees writers perform new short stories on the 14th of February. Or the panel event Femmes Fatales that sees female authors discuss how they write their strong female characters.

Jo sets up a pop-up Blackwell’s that brings professionalism to your event and helps the speakers sell their books to a new audience. Jo gives her time on evenings and weekends to be there, always welcoming, always smiling, with an interesting range of books for sale that might challenge your perception of a genre or add depth to your reading. She won’t be phased by quirky venues either. At the annual Day of the Dead she invariably sells books with one arm sticking out of the Square Tower because the fortifications – built during the reign of Henry VII – block the card reader signal.  

You might think that this is all recent news, but Jo was given an award by the writing community in 2015 for being a ‘strong and loyal supporter of the literary community here in Portsmouth.’

Writers voting for the award described Jo as possessing ‘A great attitude’ and continued ‘she is as helpful as they come and a really pleasant young lady. She forms a cornerstone of literary Portsmouth.’

Jo instantly gave her award to local writer Amber Lee Dodd, who was on the brink of her debut novel publication We Are Giants by Quercus. And just last month, when I was booked to go on local TV to get the word out about our upcoming ‘literary dragons’ den’ evening, it was Jo who came with me. She genuinely cares and wants local writers to succeed in their literary ambitions. We brushed our hair in the TV studio loos and then went to sit down side by side under the bright lights.  

Jo’s understanding of the local writing community, her support for indie writers, academics and big names alike and her smiling presence at the city’s literary events make her exceptional, wonderful, an writer’s ally.

Of course, reading this, you might think I have a special friendship with Jo. But as the coordinator of the Writers’ Hub and someone works with local writers every day, I can tell you this is how all of us feel about her.

More than 600 of us. And counting. 

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

Featured photo courtesy of Will Sutton.