5 Things You Learn Working In An Antique Bookstore

5 Things You Learn Working In An Antique Bookstore

Oliver Darkshire works at Sotheran's in Mayfair, an antique bookshop that's been in business since 1761. Here, he elucidates us on some of the things he's learned on the job.

An antique bookshop packed with tomes, and old prints on the wall
Image: Shou-Hui Wang on Flickr

When someone learns you are employed at an antique bookstore, they frequently express a misty-eyed wish to follow suit, imagining days spent luxuriating at a desk surrounded by ancient tomes to read. This, of course, is partly true, though one cannot help but internalise a number of important lessons as the years go by.

1. Touch things, but also don't touch them

The stereotype is that antique booksellers wear white gloves, but actually most of us don't. Being able to feel the book is useful in identifying materials, and also helps you not to rip or tear anything. That being said, the price of this is becoming vulnerable to the occasional poisoned book, which are more common than you'd think (less common are venomous books, which are an entirely different classification). The safest thing to do is just stare at them warily from a distance.

A man in glasses reading a book in the darkness of a bookshop
Oliver Darkshire advises sellers to take their time... but maybe not if you rock up one minute before closing. Image: Joshua Williams

2. Take your time

Making hasty decisions when it comes to rare books is a recipe for disaster. People will try to rush you into it — everyone seems to be in a hurry these days, but that's how you get bamboozled into buying a book which is missing the last five pages, or which has a notorious curse on it. No, it's best to handle things in a stately manner. As I always say, there is no such thing as a rare book emergency.

A shelf of coluurful old tomes
"Making hasty decisions when it comes to rare books is a recipe for disaster." Image: Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

3. Know your busts

In a store like Sotheran's, everything seems to be for sale. The floorboards, the doors, the antique busts we use as doorstops. And yes, someone will eventually try to buy them from you. If you haven't figured out who the sculptor was trying to represent (and you probably haven't, because they have no distinguishing features apart from very large eyebrows) then you have to take your best guess. That's almost definitely Shakespeare, sir. No, I'm certain that must be Napoleon, Madam, look at the hat. A most winsome reproduction of Wagner (post-mortem), yours for a modest fee.

4. Embrace the chaos

Every bookseller maintains a certain level of artistic jumble in their lives. You start out with a clear working area and all your pens lined up, and two years later you are drowning in a sea of Extremely Important reference materials, ephemera and arcane tools that you simply cannot live without. There is no fighting this. It is inevitable, like the tides.

Oliver's book on display next to a row of antique books and in gold lettering:
"In a store like Sotheran's, everything seems to be for sale. The floorboards, the doors, the antique busts we use as doorstops."

5. Close early

No matter when your official closing times are, there are people who will go out of their way to arrive one minute before you turn over the CLOSED sign. I rather fancy they plan it. Then they spend an hour mooching about while you passive aggressively tap your foot and glance meaningfully at the clock. This can be avoided by strategically lowering the shutters a few minutes in advance of your official closing hour, and retreating to a dark corner to avoid anyone tapping on the window.

Once Upon a Tome by Oliver Darkshire is published by Bantam, RRP £14.99

Last Updated 07 October 2022