Once Upon a Tome, published in 2022, is the memoir of rare bookseller, Oliver Darkshire, telling the story of his apprenticeship at Sotheran’s antiquarian bookshop in Sackville Street, London.
This is a charming and funny book, with a quick, unexpected stab of extremely moving right at the end. There are plenty of colourful characters encountered in the surprisingly varied life of a bookseller. If you think it’s just about working in an old shop you’d be wrong. There are adventurous journeys to libraries in crumbling mansions, book conferences in York, storage cellars in Kings Cross, as well as trips to other rare bookshops to return borrowed hat stands.
Once Upon a Tome has a lot to say about all kinds of things, the enigma of value, health and safety in the ancient work place, the ironies of ownership, guords. There’s rare book jargon, and assessment of various species of collector – the omnivorous Smaugs and the focused Draculas. Out of this witty, wry, droll collection of observations, one in particular really said something to me about books. I don’t mean books that cost thousands of pounds, which are way beyond my budget – I mean all books, including the books I borrow from Kent eLibrary, a type of book that has no physical existence at all, and can never find a place on Sotheran’s shelves. This observation involved Oliver’s cautious reveal to his new colleagues that he was gay.
“If a place is aesthetically stuck in the 1800s the people who work there might be too.”
But when Oliver drops a gendered pronoun regarding his partner into conversation, he gets no reaction. There’s nothing, no drama. The only difference is that bookseller James seems to put more authors like Oscar Wilde and Christopher Isherwood in Oliver’s cataloguing, as if making a point about the book world. Wide reading tends to promote tolerance and acceptance, opening a reader to different points of view and experience. A book shop as old at Sotheran’s may be a bit backward looking, suspicious of computers, dusty, prone to mould, but it is a naturally tolerant environment. Of course there have been intolerant books, dark books, books that are now an embarrassment. An antiquarian bookshop could well have examples of those. But Oliver suggests we can learn from any book. A nazi might burn books, but Sotheran’s would not burn a copy of Mein Kampf. The shop would seek to place it, say, with an institutional buyer interested in the context of such a work. And none of this means that the shop would fail to show the door to any aggressive bigot who goose steps over the threshold. You see the difference? Book burners don’t usually read widely. People who read don’t often burn books.
As someone who loves books, this was one of my favourite observations in a book of excellent book-centric observations.