Independent of the Month: Cambridge University Press Bookshop

The CUP bookshop spreads the academic prowess of Cambridge all around the world

Cambridge University Press Bookshop (CUP) has the great privilege of inhabiting one of the oldest and most historic buildings in the city. And when the city in question is Cambridge, one with a world-renowned heritage, that’s really saying something. The shop, at number one Trinity Street, in the heart of the city centre – is one of the most historic sites in bookselling, and is believed to be the oldest bookshop in the whole of the UK. 

“The history of our building is linked to the history of English printing,” explains Alice Tranah of CUP Bookshop. “At the end of the 16th century there were small, individual printing shops on what is now Senate House lawn. They used to sell pamphlets and other things that they printed through a shop on Trinity Street; the very same site where the CUP bookshop is now.”

It’s known that books have been sold from the shop since at least 1581, and possibly as early as 1505. “In the early days the printers were connected to the university,” continues Alice, “but the shop has been through many incarnations between then and becoming the CUP Bookshop.” 

Cambridge University Press is itself the oldest printing and publishing house in the world, and the oldest university press. It originated from Letters Patent – like a Royal Charter – granted to the university by Henry VIII in 1534. London printers had a monopoly on the English trade at that time, so printing didn’t actually begin in Cambridge for another 50 years, when a University printer, Thomas Thomas, was appointed and began printing and selling works from the Trinity Street bookshop. Groundbreaking works produced by the Press include John Milton’s Lycidas in 1638 and a second edition of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica in 1713 that saved the book from obscurity and improved significantly on the original – the Cambridge University library has a copy of the first edition with with corrections in Newton’s own hand.

From 1845 onwards the bookshop was run by Alexander and Daniel Macmillan, who became so successful on the publishing side that they gave up running the shop to concentrate on the now world-famous publishing house. Relatives of the Macmillans then ran the shop as Bowes & Bowes, and it bore this name from 1907, despite being taken over by W H Smith, until 1986, when it became Sherratt & Hughes. The bookshop even has its own ghostly legend: it’s said that it’s haunted by the ghost of a Victorian gentleman, as well as that of a young girl with long, fair hair, who is accompanied by the smell of violets!    

"Cambridge University Press is the oldest publishing house in the world"

Cambridge University Press took over the bookshop in 1992, and since then has been exclusively selling CUP books. As well as customers from in and around Cambridge, the shop sends books out to customers globally, via mail order and online.  “We sell books all over the world, and have an Amazon selling point as well,” says Alice. “We offer a service that is very specialised and can get hold of books that other providers can’t necessarily.

“We supply to libraries, we supply a lot of books to the individual college and department libraries in Cambridge itself, and can get hold of books very quickly if their students have made special requests,” she continues. “We can even arrange to have books printed and manufactured at short notice, so it’s a unique and very thorough service.” 

Many bookshops bemoan the advent of Amazon and other online book retailers, but Alice feels that their relationship with the Internet giant has been a positive one for both sides. “We’re able to reach people that can’t just come in off the street, people all over the world,” she explains. “It gives us a reach to customers who may have no idea our shop exists: they can still find out about what the Press does and can buy our books through Amazon, which is beneficial for us and our customers.” 

The building next door to the CUP bookshop is their associated Schools and English Language Learning shop, which opened in 2008. “It specialises in English as a second language and education materials for primary schools through to GCSE and A level,” says Alice. “The people that work in there are specialists in helping with the education side of things. The CUP publishes world-leading materials and titles in this area and it’s a hugely important part of what the Press does.”

CUP bookshop also runs events throughout the year, some of them linked with the colleges, as well as book launches and themed educational events, including ones for English as a second language learners. May 2017 is a really important time for the bookshop, as it’s its 25th anniversary, and the team have lots of competitions and promotions planned to celebrate. “We will be putting details of all our planned events on our Facebook page, and also on Twitter and Instagram.

“Cambridge is a city with a wonderful literary history,” says Alice, “and we are proud to be a part of that, so we want to celebrate our past achievements and look to the future of the CUP bookshop.” 

CUP Bookshop, 1 Trinity Street, Cambridge CB2 1SZ | 01223 333333 | Facebook: Cambridge University Press Bookshop | Twitter: @CUPBookshop