Sotheran’s: a venerable antiquarian bookseller

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Literary great

Mayfair-based Henry Sotheran’s is a treasure trove for rare book collectors

T here is a timeless quality about the Mayfair premises of Henry Sotheran’s. The venerable antiquarian booksellers has been in business since the 1760s and its tome-lined shelves and long wooden desks resonate with the understated charm of a long-lost era.

The shop is vaguely reminiscent of a scene from one of the Harry Potter films – rather appropriately, given the recent record-breaking sales of rare books from their author, JK Rowling.

Seated behind the best-placed of the solid-looking desks, facing the door and positioned to watch the hustle and bustle of Sackville Street, is Andrew McGeachin, the firm’s managing director.

A veteran of more than 25 years in the antiquarian book trade, he may well have witnessed more changes in the sector during his career than his forerunners saw in the previous two centuries.

‘In the past people might have had their own tame bookseller – the person they went to whenever they wanted to add to their collection. Now so much information is available online collectors can compare copies of books without moving from their seat at home.’

To an extent that explosion in the amount of accessible information has resulted in a democratisation of the market, he adds, but it has also brought with it polarisation – with the most desirable works seeing sharp increases in value while the lower end of the spectrum has fallen into something of a decline.

‘As a bookseller, you have to be able to show that your copy is the best one available or that it has something about it that makes it stand out from the crowd. For example, it might be signed or it might have belonged to someone famous.

‘Provenance is a huge thing and that’s where more and more booksellers are trying not just to have copies of books, but to have really interesting copies of books.’

The shop is vaguely reminiscent of a scene from one of the Harry Potter films

Book collectors also come to Sotheran's because of the firm’s long-standing expertise and in-depth knowledge of all things literary, he adds.

‘We’ve been around for 256 years so people trust what we’re saying. If we say something is a really nice copy of a book, then people are going to believe it. If you buy from someone you’ve never heard of who’s working from his shed, he might not have the same ideas about what constitutes “a nice copy”.’

McGeachin also points out that collecting rare books is complicated in other ways. ‘Art is comparatively simple,’ he suggests. ‘You see a picture and you like it or you don’t. With books it’s harder because they aren’t usually unique items, [as a collector] you have to understand you’re buying it because you’ll enjoy it.’

That enjoyment could stem from a wide range of factors, he adds. ‘Somebody might like the look of books in their leather bindings. Or they might be interested particularly in the illustrations or they might even like the smell.

Book collectors also come to Sotheran's because of the firm’s long-standing expertise and in-depth knowledge of all things literary

'Antiquarian books, if you give them a proper polish, have a very distinctive smell. Someone else might like the sound a book makes; something that’s printed on vellum will make a real crackle when you turn the pages. With the exception of taste, books can appeal to all the senses at once.’

In terms of what books to buy, McGeachin suggests enthusiasts don’t become fixated on price and the potential of their investment to grow in value, although that can be a welcome fringe benefit. Instead, he recommends concentrating on an existing area of interest that isn’t too narrow in its focus.

‘A collector might be interested in evolution,’ he explains. ‘They could start with the works of Charles Darwin, then move on to the people who disagreed with him and the people who agreed with him and build up a whole collection around an idea.’

‘Alternatively, cricket might appeal to someone who enjoys sport. Thousands of books are available on the subject, but the collector can focus on their interests. It could be the game in the sub-continent, or in Australia or related to the English counties. Alternatively, they could concentrate on a period such as Bodyline and the 1930s or WG Grace and the 19th century.

‘We start with the individual, find out what they like, then, in the nicest possible way we tell them what to buy.’

Even in the rarified world of rare books, trends and fashions come and go, he adds. ‘There are enduring classics such as Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens. Then, from the 20th century, there are the likes of Graham Green, Evelyn Waugh and Ian Fleming.'

And what about the author of those Harry Potter books? ‘With someone such as JK Rowling it will be interesting to see if, in 25 years time, anyone is buying [rare copies of] her books and whether she has the longevity of a Fleming, for example.’

One reason for the latter’s continuing popularity, he adds, is the film franchise that keeps regenerating interest in the author’s written works. With the Potter films already in the can, it might take an unlikely re-make to spark up the market.

Not that the film of the book always acts in a positive way, he notes. ‘When Captain Corelli’s Mandolin came out in cinemas, it was slated. Before then [first editions of] the book had been worth a few hundred pounds because people thought it was rather good. But the film devalued it. No-one wanted copies after that.’

Sotheran's London

Words: DH

This article was originally published in Halcyon magazine in 2018

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