Rare books are definitely a cult – of the obsessive kind,” nods Pom Harrington, owner of Peter Harrington Rare Books in London. “Our trade is very quirky. Booksellers are even quirkier. So are the customers. But I think our business is opening up the market.” It’s a fair claim. What began in 1969 as a stall in Chelsea Antiques Market, run by Harrington’s father and uncle, has developed into a two-shop operation and a thriving e-store. The Chelsea headquarters isn’t a “dusty old bookshop with some grumpy old man peering over his glasses”, jokes Harrington, but a brightly converted set of townhouses lined, floor to ceiling, with vintage tomes, and staffed by a team of young, approachable – and knowledgeable – booksellers.
The extensive stock – some 20,000 books – ranges from a first edition of Rainforest (£40), a novel by Doris Lessing’s unofficially adopted daughter Jenny Diski, and an early edition of A Christmas Carol (£1,250), to a 1937 copy of Gone with the Wind (£12,500) inscribed by Vivien Leigh to a friend long before she was cast as Scarlett O’Hara in the film. “We find books at auctions, fairs and dealers all over the world,” says Harrington. “We spend a lot of time in the US, but also visit Paris, Stuttgart, Melbourne, Tokyo and Cape Town at least once a year.” He is also approached frequently by amateur traders hoping for an Antiques Roadshow-style attic jackpot. “We get emails saying: ‘I’ve got The Bible, signed.’ No, you don’t. ‘A folio of Shakespeare’s plays, signed by William Shakespeare.’ No, you don’t. Then we got one saying: ‘I’ve got a first-edition Frankenstein signed by Mary Shelley.’ No, you don’t.” In the case of Mary Shelley, they did – and it was valued at £350,000.
The highest price tag to date, though, is the £2.5m attached to a complete collection of first-edition James Bond books – each signed by Ian Fleming and dedicated variously to his wife, Winston Churchill, Robert Kennedy and, oddly, James Bond. With such finds, it’s unsurprising that Harrington’s customers include royalty (he has just applied for a Royal Warrant), world leaders, “most of your Hollywood A-listers”, and a “Silicon Valley king” who wanted “50 metres of books” to fill his shelves to a budget of $200,000.
A more popular request is for thoughtful and unique gifts. For poetry fans, perhaps a first edition of Maya Angelou’s 1971 collection, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ’fore I Diiie (£575). For photography buffs, a first US edition of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment with a Matisse-designed cover and an inscription for a fellow photographer: “To Dick Schuler, who gets brilliance out of our darkness” .
As to Harrington’s own preferences, he admits that he holds onto the best Roald Dahl that comes in (“my cheaper obsession”), but it was A Tale of Two Cities inscribed to George Eliot by Charles Dickens that led him furthest into temptation. “I kept it for about a year and a half. I took it home. I actually had a safe installed,” says Harrington, who eventually put the book on the market for £275,000. “It’s hard to be a dealer and a collector. But I’m very much a dealer first.”