Oliver Darkshire works at Sotheran’s in Mayfair, an antiquarian bookshop that has been open since 1761. Here he explains to us the things he learned on the job.
When someone learns they work in an antiquarian bookstore, they often wish to follow suit with misty eyes and imagine spending days reading at a desk surrounded by ancient books. Of course, this is partially true, although over the years we have learned many important lessons.
1. Touch things, but don’t
The stereotype is that antiquarian booksellers wear white gloves, but in reality most of us don’t. The feel of the book is helpful in identifying materials and also helps you not tear or tear anything. That said, the price of this is becoming increasingly vulnerable to the occasional poisoned book, which is more common than you’d think (poisoned books are less common, which is a completely different classification). The safest thing to do is to carefully stare at them from a distance.
2. Take your time
Making hasty decisions about rare books is a recipe for disaster. People will try to drag you into it – everyone seems to be in a hurry these days, but that’s how you take in a book that’s missing the last five pages or has an infamous curse on it. No, it’s best to handle things with dignity. As I always say, there is no such thing as a rare book emergency.
3. Know your bust
In a store like Sotheran’s, everything seems to be for sale. The floorboards, the doors, the antique busts that we use as door closers. And yes, someone will eventually try to buy them from you. If you haven’t figured out who the sculptor was trying to depict (and you probably haven’t, because they have no distinguishing features other than very large eyebrows), you’ll have to make your best guess. It’s almost certainly Shakespeare, sir. No, I’m sure it’s Napoleon, ma’am, look at the hat. Wagner’s most magnificent reproduction (post mortem) is yours for a modest fee.
4. Embrace the chaos
All booksellers maintain a certain level of artistic confusion in their lives. You start with a clean workspace of all your pens, and two years later you’re drowning in a sea of all-important reference materials, ephemera, and mystical tools you simply can’t live without. There is no fighting against it. It is inevitable, just like the tides.
5. Close early
No matter when the official closing time is, there are people who will do their best to arrive a minute before you flip the CLOSED sign. I rather think it is planned. Then they goof around for an hour while you passive aggressively tap your feet and glance meaningfully at the clock. This can be avoided by strategically lowering the blinds a few minutes before the official closing time and retreating to a dark corner to avoid someone knocking on the window.
Once He Had a Tome by Oliver Darkshire, published by Bantam, RRP £14.99