The Blackwell Book Shop and the Botanic Garden are two of my favorite Oxford spots, and I discovered them both in the same day. Incidentally, that was also the day I tried my first and probably last full English breakfast.
Even before I left the States, I had intended to visit the Botanic Garden, because I wanted to find Will and Lyra’s bench. His Dark Materials contains some incredibly detailed descriptions of our Oxford and Lyra’s, and I could very easily have found the exact bench if I had just brought the right pages of The Amber Spyglass with me. But I didn’t, so I’ll have to go back. I meandered almost all the way to the Garden simply by getting distracted over and over again – first I wanted to find an ATM, and then I wandered down a funny little cobbled alley, and then I glimpsed the Radcliffe Camera gleaming in the sun and went to take a picture, and then I passed through the courtyard of the Old Bod and emerged out onto High Street….
After two minutes of walking down High Street, I figured I might as well take a look at the Garden, since mere chance would probably never carry me so close to it again. Besides, entrance is free for Oxford students. If you’re a regular visitor, the charge is £5 for a day’s admission; if you’re old, unemployed, an Oxford alum, or a non-Oxford student, the charge is £3. Personally, I would have been happy to pay £5, because I loved the Botanic Garden.
It’s beautiful. The entire garden was nearly empty, because I visited early in the day and there aren’t a whole lot of plants that grow in the middle of January. The sun had finally come out for once and warmed the air enough for one to walk about with one’s coat open, and the paths glittered with residual ice from TWO FREAKING WEEKS of snow. Birds chirped and the River Cherwell wound by and the rich buildings of Christ Church hovered over the trees. I explored the greenhouses (excuse me, “glass houses”) and then I walked around outside, looking at the patches of soil where plants were doing their best to grow. I decided to come back after they’d succeeded. After that, I just found a bench and sat in the sun. I think I closed my eyes for a while. It was exactly the sort of nature I like: peaceful, bright, contained, and bugless. Oxford has a lot to offer that’s imposing and historical and magnificent, but very little of it is delightful. The Botanic Garden is delightful.
Blackwell’s is much different. It’s not unique like the Garden, because there are 45 Blackwell’s stores in the UK. The Oxford shop on Broad Street is the original, though. It began as a teeny-tiny rare book store in 1879, and now the Oxford shop is huge, sprawling across two buildings and several floors, trying to negotiate its way around the other establishments that have cropped up around it. There’s also a Blackwell music shop and a Blackwell art-and-poster shop across the street, both of which are apparently a big deal if you’re into that kind of thing.
There is no way to describe the spellbinding quality of Blackwell’s to someone who doesn’t love books, and anyone who does love books won’t need an explanation. It brands itself as an “academic bookseller,” but that doesn’t really do it justice. Yes, it sells academic books of all shapes and sizes and subjects, but it also sells books of every other sort: literature, poetry, travel guides, cookbooks, teenage paranormal romance, etc., along with rare books, nook e-readers, and, for some reason, brightly colored leather satchels. It combines the inventory and efficiency of Barnes & Noble with the history and charm of an independent bookstore. Also, unlike the people who frequent Waterstones (which is the other massive UK bookstore chain), the people in Blackwell’s don’t glare at you when you take out a book and sit down cross-legged on the floor and start to read it.
Have you ever been to the Oxford Blackwell’s or to the Botanic Garden? Did you love them as much as I do?