Pom Harrington, owner of his father’s antique bookshop, Peter Harrington Rare Books, travels the globe in search of the rarest tomes on earth. “Twice a year I drive around America just going from bookshop to bookshop,” he says. “There’s only so much you can find on the internet and sometimes you come across the most amazing items that have been cast away with no idea what they’re worth.”
The business came from far more parochial origins. In the 1970s, Peter Harrington took over a stall in Chelsea Antiques Market and quickly discovered that the collectible books he bought in the country and sold to City-types proved much more popular than anything else he was selling. Books dominated his stall and his collection grew to such a size that he eventually took over the entire market, sold the freehold, and founded his own bookshop on the Fulham Road. Since leaving the business to his son Pom, it has grown to include a contemporary art gallery and a thriving mail order trade through its website. A second premise is set to open on Mayfair’s Dover Street in June.
The polished stacks on the ground floor display row upon row of gleaming first editions. Venture upstairs in the four-storey converted townhouse and the chaos grows the higher you climb. In total, the shop is home to 10,000 rare items, from £150,000 Shakespeare folios to great political tomes; from Damien Hirsts to 17th century atlases.
Whatever our technological advances, the principles that determine what makes a book valuable remain the same. “It could be the greatest-looking book in the world,” says Harrington, “but if no one likes it, no one cares. You want desirability of the text, then the first printing, then the rarity. For example, around 4,000 copies were first printed of Winnie the Pooh, but it became very popular so they issued 26,000 copies so the price goes down by a third in the second printing
“Lastly, the condition is so important. We have to make sure no pages are missing before we buy and we have UV-blocking glass in our windows to protect our books from the sunlight. Ultimately, you’re trying to collect something that’s in the condition it was issued. The Holy Grail is to find the object that really makes you tick – if you’re a banker, it might be Smith’s Wealth of Nations – and get it the way you would have back in 1776.”
Harrington recalls an American customer who acquired a first edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island among some other books that had been bound in Morocco that he bought for a few thousand dollars. Soon he wanted all the books in their original condition. While pursuing those, he found one of them, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in its original binding and ended up paying $500,000 for it.
A book’s value is also mythologised because, unlike many other collectibles, they can’t be replicated – there are a finite amount of original condition Frankensteins out there. This heightens the exhilaration of finding one of the few in existence.
“Before the book fairs open, there’s all this secretive trading when everyone’s setting up and it’s a bit of a bun fight. In some cases, you’ve literally got dealers unpacking other dealers’ stock so they can see what books they’ve brought in.”
Rare books are constantly changing hands and some great stories are created in the dogged pursuit of them. The most impressive book in Harrington’s extensive personal collection is a book he chased for 14 years – a copy of Bambi, illustrated by Walt Disney, inscribed to Roald Dahl. But how did these giants of children’s fiction cross paths? “Walt Disney gave Roald Dahl his first job and produced his first book, Gremlins.” It first came up for auction in 2000 for £7,000. Constantly outbid for it, Harrington had all but given up on the book when its owner simply walked into his bookshop and offered it for sale, oblivious to the fact he had originally outbid Harrington.
While he has been involved in the sale of books worth £500,000, the vast majority go for a couple of thousand pounds, coming from a select group of popular authors; Roald Dahl, JK Rowling, Winston Churchill (of whom the shop is something of a specialist), AA Milne, Ian Fleming, and Jane Austen (“who I just can’t get enough of. I’d sell them every day if I had them”).
For all the talk of Amazon killing off the book trade, Harrington says he’s weathering the storm. It’s the “shady” dealers who are suffering most. Easy access to a wealth of knowledge online means it doesn’t take long for new collectors to suss out a bad deal. Those flogging overpriced and overvalued books are quickly exposed. City dwellers now know exactly what books cost in the country and vice versa so prices have leveled out – something that would have killed off Peter Harrington’s trade in Chelsea Antiques Market.
As we’re finishing up the phone rings. “A gentleman on the phone is desperate to meet you in Paris tomorrow to talk over a sale”, Harrington is informed by a colleague. The search goes on.