Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller

Image of Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller
Release Date: 
March 14, 2023
W. W. Norton & Company
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“step into the stacks and enjoy the subtle humor and myriad characters—booksellers and customers alike—that comprise Sotheran’s.”

Oliver Darkshire works at Henry Southern Ltd—Fine Books and Prints, which is described by the managing director as having been “heaving around the world since 1761.” He entices readers with a description of his first impression—the smell, “Decades of books closely stacked on top of each other without ever being touched leaves a distinctive and slightly violently odour behind. . . .”

“People have strange ideas about how an antiquarian bookseller should look. I suppose most people never think about it at all, but if they do, then they seem to conceive of a late-middle-aged man in tweed with a twinkle in his eye and a penny farthing waiting to whisk him away to his next adventure.”

Unlike that mythical bookseller, Darkshire does not wear tweed and, after reading his book, readers will be wholly aware there is no twinkling eye or penny farthing in his persona. Instead he presents readers with a book about a very old bookshop tucked away on Sackville Street, a London “commercial dead-end,” just off Piccadilly.  He brings you into intimate contact with the sounds, smells, and myriad characters that comprise Sotheran’s—past and present.

When booksellers write a book the reward is a plethora of new and unusual words. And Darkshire does not disappoint. He embeds his narrative with words like ineluctable, vellichor, abstemious, strigine, capacious, phlegmatic, gurned, cogitations, liminal, and one seldom, if ever, encountered—nuckelavee. It is a special experience when a reading a book requires ready access to a dictionary.

Darkshire began his career at Sotheran’s as an apprentice. His first encounter with Sotheran’s involves the smell: “Vellichor. There’s something wistful about old books when they are gathered in one place. They have a faintly unsatisfied smell, as if they’re all distantly aware that they’ve missed their chance to be a worldwide smash hit.”

Contrary to the image the title might evoke, this is a slight book, but jammed with stories of the idiosyncratic sellers and customers. It is a gentle read, not scholarly in nature or tone. And that is to the reader’s benefit, because once started, it is not to be put down.

Darkshire manages to entice the reader into traveling with him as he explores his new workplace, grows into his expertise, and visits to the underworld of Sotheran’s equally antiquarian storage facility, known as the “Other Cellars at Kings Cross,” which could be added to any London ghost walk. One of the best parts of the author’s visit to the “Other Cellars” is his interaction with the Cellar’s lone resident, “Cellar Lady.”

Darkshire acknowledges that people often view booksellers as “terrestrial genies, spiriting up the answer to any problem from the bottom of our fusty old pockets.” While he does not fit that description his compatriots are another story.

Sotheran’s is renowned within the world of antiquarian books as a source for ancient tomes and hard-to-find publications on esoteric topics that defy the standard group think of generalized booksellers.

With wit and wisdom, Darkshire journeys through the store’s shelves and cellars, thereby allowing the reader to become part of that rarefied legacy that is Sotheran’s

Interspersed with his understated comedic commentary about life in an antiquarian bookstore, Darkshire provides a well-considered warning to readers, “if you value your life: stay away from any virulently bright green cloth bindings from the Victorian period, because the wretched things were coloured using arsenic, and it’s a nasty way to go.”

Good to know.