By the book: Bringing antiquarian bookselling into the 21st century
Pom Harrington on the thrill of selling first editions of Shakespeare, Shackleton and Churchill
It's easy enough to see why many antiquarian bookshops tend to be family-run businesses. A lot of children, myself included, grew up around their parents as they bought and sold first editions – at a very young age I watched my dad Peter grow a business from a market stall on the Kings Road Chelsea, then with his brother Adrian forming Harrington Brothers, which was so successful that they eventually made enough money to buy the market itself.
That was sold in 1997, so my father and I started Peter Harrington our specialist bookshop at 100 Fulham Road – one street over – which remains our company headquarters. Just over 25 years ago, I spent a summer there doing odd jobs with my dad and uncle (now Tunbridge Wells-based bookseller Adrian Harrington), and learned quickly enough that I had a knack for selling.
From our new Fulham Road premises, reshuffles, acquiring the shop next door and the addition of a gallery business, 'Peter Harrington Ltd' was born.
A huge amount has changed since then. I took over the business when my father passed away 13 years ago, keeping the momentum going while trying to ensure that our shop remained welcoming, accessible and interesting to members of the general public and collectors alike. That's been key, I think, to our success – we often have to let customers know they can touch and open the books on our shelves when they first visit, and encouraging that makes all the difference to the way they think about collecting something tangible.
Alongside our base in Chelsea, we now also sell books from a recently opened second shop in Mayfair, which was a particularly exciting moment for the business. The premises has taken on a gallery feel, as opposed to the more traditional bookshop environment of Chelsea – understanding the difference in the communities and customers in each area of London has been an enjoyable challenge.
It might perhaps be easy to assume that antiquarian booksellers are luddites lamenting the rise of the Kindle etc. but actually book collecting communities have grown in size and scope thanks to online forums and social media groups, and our own reach has extended with them.
We've been careful to move with the times, getting on board with digital record keeping in the 80s and a website in the early 90s, then picking up pace in the past 15 years with international e-commerce sites in multiple territories as well as our recently-launched app. All of our items are photographed beautifully, and many are also featured in our videos; it's becoming ever easier for our collectors and first-time customers to make decisions on which books they'd like to buy remotely, although of course we spend a fair amount of time on foreign soil in person – book fairs run worldwide throughout the year, and we've even been known to send particularly special books with an accompanying specialist to other continents.
We've been privileged enough to sell some of the most astonishing items across the worlds of literature, travel, history and economics – first editions of Shakespeare, Shackleton, Churchill and Smith have all spent time on our shelves – as well as full collections like our current Arthur Rackham catalogue.
The book collecting world is one particularly exciting to move within, partly because of the unique items and inscriptions that can quite literally walk into the shop – Shelley's Frankenstein inscribed to Lord Byron is a particularly memorable highlight – and partly because of the characters who spend their lives coveting and collecting them. Everyone has their own particular interest, and it can always be surprising to discover what those are, and to find the right book for them.
POM HARRINGTON runs Peter Harrington's rare book store, which was established by his father in 1969 to buy and sell the finest-quality original first editions, signed, rare and antiquarian books, fine bindings and library sets. Their shop at 100 Fulham Road, Chelsea, London, has more than 20,000 volumes and 6,000 prints and old maps while their shop in Dover Street, Mayfair, has around 7,000 books arranged over two floors. Visitors who want to buy or sell books or just browse are warmly welcomed; www.peterharrington.co.uk
This article first appeared on 9th Nov 2016 in THE WEEK UK and is published here with permission of the editor.
Image credits by THE WEEK