The Oxford Literary Festival: A Bookseller’s Perspective

Bookselling had always seemed to me to be a dream job. My vast experience of the industry, based on countless viewings of a certain London-based rom-com featuring Hugh Grant, had left me envisioning a quiet existence revolving around cups of tea, gentle walks around Notting Hill, and chance encounters with gorgeous actresses looking for a travel guide. For a guy who counts washing-up as hard labour, the profession sounded rather ideal.

All I needed was a chance to prove that I had what it takes.

So when I heard that Blackwells were looking for temporary staff to help out at the Oxford Literary Festival I seized my opportunity for a louche literary life and signed up immediately. Application successful, I swiftly found out that there was rather more to bookselling than I had first assumed…

The Oxford Literary Festival celebrated its 20th Anniversary this year, and from the outset Blackwells has been a major part of the event. Responsible for running the box office as well as maintaining a gigantic marquee bookshop and venue bookstalls, you can imagine how much setting up was involved. For two days a small army of people, including the troupe of keen and blissfully unaware Brookes students of which I was a part, descended on the square between the Bodleian Library and Sheldonian Theatre. There my illusions were abruptly shattered as we were challenged to transform a large white tent into a fully-functioning hub of bookselling and literary events.

My contribution was bookshelves. Mile upon mile of bookshelves built with a potent mix of determination, testosterone, and Allen keys. Combined with the relentless, week-long task of lugging crates of books from venue to storeroom and back, there was a chance that my bookselling dream would be quashed by the physical strain on my ordinarily desk-inhabiting body. But when the first eager customers filtered into the marquee on the opening weekend, there was a chance to step back and reflect on what it meant to take part in such an event.

Despite the bruises, aches, pains, and niggles I was burdened with, we had contributed to a truly international coming together of writers and booklovers. Speakers from more than twenty different countries came to share their work and ideas, including the likes of Mary Beard, Ben Okri, Jacqueline Wilson, Garry Kasparov, and Sir Ian McKellen. The range of subjects and formats was dazzling, and for the first time children’s literature was featured strongly to recognise the Festival’s alignment with the Easter holidays. There was such a buzz around the quality of content on show that even the occupation of Catte Street by a Hollywood production team featuring Tom Cruise didn’t empty the marquee. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the residents of Oxford were more captivated by coffee and free lectures in our Shakespeare Lounge (sponsored by OUP) than by former A-list celebs. However it was still encouraging to see how central books and reading were in the lives of the thousands of people who visited the festival that week.

And what did I learn about bookselling?

That bruises and backache are always worth it when you see a smile on the face of a satisfied customer when you have found the last signed copy of their favourite author’s new book. Although I never did get to help Julia Roberts find some holiday reading

Ben Horton

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