So, last night a thing happened to me. I went to a party. I don’t get invited to parties much as a rule, I always end up pulling someone’s hair or sticking my fingers in the cake, and none of the other kids like books as presents. This, however, was a rare book trade party, and they always have to make up the numbers somehow.
The shindig, or indeed hootenanny, in question was the opening of this:
A bookshop, not messing about, yesterday.
This is Peter Harrington Rare Books new Dover Street branch in the posh bit of Mayfair. In case you were wondering, no, there’s no bit of Mayfair that isn’t posh. If there were an un-posh bit, this shop wouldn’t be in it, I needed an escort of smartly dressed adults to get within ten feet of the door unchallenged.
As you can see, it’s very pretty, very green and exuding an air of calm elegance. My familiarity with calm elegance is right up there with my familiarity of say, early cuneiform, or the inner workings of the Antikythera Mechanism, but I have it on good authority from people who know calm elegance when they see it that, yup, this place is dripping with it.
Justin Croft was there, what more do you need to know? He’s like a calm elegance early warning system. He also doesn’t age, but that’s a story for another day, one when we have garlic and mistletoe and the backing of a reasonably sized religion.
“No, I am in fact 175 years old…hmm? Oh, virgin’s blood mainly, and special soil…”
In case you were wondering whether I’m just plugging their shop because I work for one of their relatives, no, that wasn’t my intention, have you met me? I’m plugging their shop because it’s awesome. Not because it’s big, and clean and spacious, not because it has concealed lighting and air conditioning and a cool staircase and not because they were giving away free champagne and the bubbles went up my nose.
I mean, all those things are true, but they aren’t really things I give much of a toss about (except the free champagne), in fact they are usually reasons for me not to particularly like a place, being kind of grubby and low rent myself. There are other reasons:
Firstly, it’s a massive vote of confidence in the rare book trade, its future, and its customers. At a time when (once again) the majority of booksellers are predicting a rain of frogs and the imminent arrival of the Whore of Babylon (whom I believe collects Cosway bindings and Jardine’s New Naturalist), often whilst people who want to buy books off them are standing there looking all forlorn and forgotten, this is a successful, internationally lauded firm making the statement that no, they aren’t having any of that, they are going to sell amazing books to anyone who wants them and they’re going to do it with a degree of style. So there’s that. We like that.
Secondly, the staff. Normally I hate bookshop staff. I am bookshop staff, and I’m grotesque, so I naturally suspect the same of anyone in the same profession.
Me, only better groomed.
Dover Street is being managed by Ben Houston. He is not horrid. He’s annoyingly intelligent, reprehensibly helpful and informed and quite disgustingly friendly and efficient. He fills me with insecurity and self loathing. He gave myself and one of my colleagues a guided tour and he actually managed to make us feel as if we were perhaps his first or most definitely, favourite guided tour of the day. He’d probably done 50, and detested most of the last 20. I have a keen eye for vile and deceitful behaviour in others (I’m competitive that way) and could detect none. He gave us drinks and showed us wonderful books. He smelled nice, sort of sandalwoody with a hint of citrus, rather like one might expect the 1930’s to smell, only with less national socialism.
All that aside, he knows what he’s talking about, and he knows what he’s doing…personally not things I look for in a bookshop manager, but people who want to buy inscribed F. Scott Fitzgerald, sets of Cook’s Voyages in contemporary bindings and the world’s most beautiful first edition of The Hobbit probably feel differently. They probably think he’s peachy.
I was also introduced to Gracie Pocock, who initially had the bad judgement to attempt to make me believe she was actually looking forward to meeting me. Once we’d got that tissue of patent untruths out of the way I discovered that she is working in PR and marketing for the rare book trade. The party was her doing. It appeared most successful.
Yes. I know.
Public Relations in the British rare book trade used to consist of wearing a shirt with not too much egg down it. Marketing involved a sign on the front of your shop and a postcard in the local newsagent’s window. I’m exaggerating, but not by much. It is still very much possible to attend a bookfair by accident, simply because you didn’t know it was happening and took a wrong turn into a church hall. This is a trade where a lot of dealers still get grumpy when you buy a book off them and ask for a receipt. Miss Pocock might have to get an assistant.
The main reason why you should drop everything and go to the Dover Street shop is pretty obvious. The books; the books are absolutely incredible.
This copy has no way been there and back again…
and somewhere there’s this:
McKenney & Hall, the original line up before the arrival of John Oates.
It was the best of books, it was the…well pretty much the best of books actually.
All those images are the property of Peter Harrington Rare Books, just click on the pictures to see the descriptions. It’s well worth it.
So go. Go and browse. It’s beautiful. I haven’t been this impressed by anything in a long while. Usually my life is a storm of NSFW book lust on the one hand and the crippling disappointment of reality on the other. Occasionally there’s a brief moment of joy caused by finding a half eaten, forgotten pasty in my coat pocket, or when Adrian forgets to mark the level on the shop whisky bottle…but last night’s visit to Dover Street was a very grown up, considered, intelligent and important event. The appearance of a shop like that, whoever owns it, wherever it is, is a significant moment for the international rare book trade. Much as I love the teetering piles of old leather and the creaky cabinets of cloth bound oddities, and I do love them, fervently and indecently; they are where I grew up, and where many important things happened to me…but often the books deserve better.
That’s what it comes down to at the end of the day; are the books being given their due importance, their proper significance? Aside from the fact that we’re all trying to make money out of them, aside from the fact that there’s no such thing as free champagne, aside from the fact that we’re all fashionably cynical and that we have collectively more behavioral disorders than an off Broadway production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest…that perfect copy of The Hobbit, or the corrected Joyce typescript, or a first issue Origin of Species or a 16th century navigational manuscript don’t actually give a damn how much money we put on them, nor do they care which of us get to put them in a catalogue or exhibit them at Olympia…the only thing that matters is that they are put in the best possible place in the world to be seen, and to do their job, and feed our sense of wonder.
Last night I drank free champagne in one of those possible places.