The UK’s largest book chain, Waterstones, has acquired the country’s largest independent bookseller, Blackwell’s, ending 143 years of family ownership and signalling a further concentration of the bookselling industry.
Blackwell’s, which has 18 bookshops, was put up for sale this month after its owners ditched a plan to hand it to employees. The chain will continue to trade under its own brand.
The acquisition by Waterstones will see Blackwell’s ultimately fall under the umbrella of the £38.4bn US hedge fund Elliott Investment Management, which in 2019 also purchased the largest US bookseller, Barnes & Noble.
Along with Waterstones’ acquisition of the UK book chain Foyles in 2018, it marks a further contraction in the book retail market.
The acquisition will be viewed by some as a regrettable end to the family ownership of a cherished independent and academic bookseller. To others, it will be heralded as a turbo-boost for real-world bookshops in the battle for dominance with their online rival Amazon.
Toby Blackwell, the outgoing owner and president, said finding new owners had been “an extraordinary challenge”, adding that Waterstones’ purchase of Foyles had demonstrated “they understand the advantages and benefits of holding diverse iconic bookselling brands in their portfolio”.
“I view them not just as a buyer of the business, but as the right buyer at the right time,” Blackwell added. “This is a positive outcome for Waterstones, Blackwell’s and all our customers in the UK and abroad, who will still be able to enjoy the individual nature of what both brands offer.”
UK book sales continued to climb last year, with more than 212m print books sold in 2021, according to figures by Nielsen BookScan – the highest figure of the last decade.
The deal will be financed by funds advised by Elliott Advisors, Waterstones said. Waterstones currently has 291 bookstores across the UK, Ireland, Brussels and Amsterdam.
Blackwell’s chief executive, David Prescott, said the acquisition would “ensure the future” of the bookseller, saying Waterstones had outlined a plan to “invest in our people, our shops and in our growing e-commerce operation”.
The cost is expected to be in the “low single-digit millions”, according to the Financial Times, which cited a source close to the talks.
“Blackwell’s and Heffers are amongst the most illustrious names in bookselling, a legacy for which we have the utmost respect,” said James Daunt, Waterstones’ managing director.
“We greatly look forward to working alongside the booksellers at Blackwell’s as we secure the future of these wonderful bookshops and preserve academic bookselling in so many towns and campuses across the UK,” he added.
The Green party peer Natalie Bennett expressed disappointment at the move. “One more homogenisation of our economy – giant companies dominating their sector is the story of our times,” she wrote on Twitter.
The Dublin-based independent Gutter Bookshop tweeted that the deal felt “sad and inevitable but hopefully it’s also an opportunity to keep Blackwell’s alive.”