5 things you learned while working in an antique bookstore

Oliver Darkshire works at Sotheran’s in Mayfair, an antique bookstore that has been in business since 1761. Here, he explains to us some of the things he learned on the job.

Image: Shou-Hui Wang on Flickr

When someone learns you work in an antique bookstore, they often express a bewildered desire to emulate, imagining the days of reading to your heart’s content at a desk surrounded by ancient books. Of course, this is true to a certain extent, although there are some important lessons one has to internalize as the years go by.

1. Touch things, but don’t touch them either

The stereotype is that antique booksellers wear white gloves, but in reality most of us don’t. Being able to feel the book is useful for identifying material and also helps you not tear or tear anything. Having said that, its price is becoming susceptible to the occasional poisoned book, which is more common than you might think (less common are poisoned books, which are a completely different category). The safest thing to do is to watch them vigilantly from a distance.

A man with glasses reads a book in the darkness of a bookstore
Oliver Darkshire advises sellers to take their time…but if you’re swinging a minute before the close, maybe not.Image: Joshua Williams

2. Take it slow

Making hasty decisions about rare books is a recipe for disaster. People will try to rush you to read – everyone seems to be in a hurry these days, but that’s how you can be tricked into buying a book that’s missing the last five pages, or has the infamous curse on it. No, it’s better to do things with dignity. As I always say, there are no rare book emergencies.

colorful old bookshelf
“Having hasty decisions when it comes to rare books is a recipe for disaster.” Image: Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

3. Know your bust size

In stores like Sotheran’s, everything seems to be on sale. Floors, doors, antique busts that we use as doorstops. Yes, eventually someone will try to buy them from you. If you haven’t figured out who the sculptor is trying to represent (you probably haven’t, since they don’t have distinctive features other than very large eyebrows), you have to make your best guess. That’s almost certainly Shakespeare, sir. No, I’m sure that must be Napoleon, ma’am, look at the hat. Wagner’s most fascinating replica (autopsy) for a modest fee.

4. Embrace chaos

Every bookseller maintains some level of artistic chaos in their lives. You start with a clean work area with all your pens lined up, and two years later you’re drowning in a sea of ​​extremely important references, ephemeral and mysterious tools you can’t live without. There’s nothing to argue about. It’s inevitable, just like the tides.

Oliver's book is displayed in gold next to a row of antique books:
“In a store like Southland, everything seems to be on sale. Floors, doors, antique busts that we use as doorstops.”

5. Close early

No matter when your official closing time is, someone will always arrive a minute before you turn on the CLOSED sign. I prefer their plan. Then they’ll spend an hour hanging around while you passively aggressively stomp your feet and glance meaningfully at the clock. This can be avoided by strategically lowering the shutters a few minutes before the official closing time and retreating to a dark corner to avoid anyone knocking on the windows.

Oliver Darkhill’s Once Upon a Time Published by Bantam, RRP £14.99

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