March 2023

Oliver Darkshire’s accidental leap from antiquarian bookseller to author

Behind the Book by
When a rare book dealer took over a 262-year-old bookstore’s Twitter account, he got a lot more than he bargained for.
Share this Article:

Oliver Darkshire’s debut memoir, Once Upon a Tome, gives readers a behind-the-scenes tour of one of the oldest bookstores in the world—including its (possibly) haunted bric-a-brac, resolutely old-fashioned booksellers and dangerously towering stacks. In this Behind the Book essay, Darkshire tells the surprisingly modern story of how his book came to be.

I never intended to write a book. I was, in fact, against it for a number of reasons. Firstly, I was an apprentice rare book dealer, and I had no wish to add “author” to my list of impoverished career choices. It rather felt like adding insult to preexisting injury. Secondly, I’d become accustomed to the strange ways of the shop and had developed a form of Stockholm syndrome in which the daily parade of peculiarities and cryptids seemed almost normal to me. I’d deluded myself into considering my life somewhat prosaic, even as I yelled at a 70-year-old man to get down from the top shelf at once and he threw (mercifully poorly aimed) almanacs in my general direction. 

Lastly, and most importantly, if you get involved in the world of rare bookselling, you very quickly dive below the pristine, genteel surface into the dark underbelly. In the shadows of the collecting world, the habit cheerily referred to as “bibliomania” thrives in the damp and dark. Once one is lost to the urge of buying and collecting books, there really is no way back up the slippery slope to the daylight. It starts with a simple purchase of something nostalgic, and it ends when your body is found centuries later submerged in a tomblike ocean of first editions and literary ephemera. I often liken being in the business of antiquarian books to running a casino or dealing in illicit substances: You may sell to customers all you like, but you never sample the merchandise. My conscience could handle being involved in hawking books, as I could still muster some shred of denial as to the extent of my participation in organized crime, but the act of writing a book seemed like a step too far.

Read our starred review of ‘Once Upon a Tome’ by Oliver Darkshire.

It was the Twitter account that started this whole mess, vanity being the sin that leads to all such downfalls. As a bookstore, Henry Sotheran Ltd on Sackville Street in London has kept a low profile since the late 20th century. It’s been through phases of popularity and desolation since 1761 when it was founded, but it was enjoying a few decades of peace and quiet when I ruined everything. Thinking myself very clever, and with the confidence of the young, I decided I might “help” by taking on some of the social media. I also thought it might be nice to have a place to vent about the odd things that happened at the shop—though I did have to move a stuffed owl out of the way so I had enough room on my desk to plug in a mobile phone among the stacks of reference books my colleagues assured me were vitally necessary, and which I never found reason to open. 

It didn’t take long before a few stories that I leaked onto the internet—such as a thread about a singular and ill-fated visit from a Health and Safety inspector—threw the account into the public gaze, and it accelerated into the kind of popularity (or perhaps notoriety) an antiquarian bookseller dreads. Very soon my life was a frenzy of managing “likes,” which didn’t seem to mean anyone liked anything, “retweets,” which sounded like a hate crime, and direct messages, which were very confusing because Sotherans was still in the process of adjusting to the phenomenon of email (a dark art to be sure, but business is business). People would wander into the store asking for the person who “does the tweets,” and my quiet life was over. Pandora’s box was open, and it could not be closed again.

“It starts with a simple purchase of something nostalgic, and it ends when your body is found centuries later submerged in a tomblike ocean of first editions and literary ephemera.”

I don’t know if anyone in our musty old bookstore really knew what to make of our ever-increasing internet popularity. The notion of a “meme” was soundly ridiculed as inconsequential until I made a passing reference to my love of a tuna sandwich online, which took on a life of its own in the minds of our followers and eventually culminated in people sending us cans of tuna in the mail. My colleagues held the internet in the same esteem as a bucket of vipers: a situationally useful catalyst for change, if one is in particularly dire circumstances, but not something to be handled irresponsibly. As our following grew larger and more prominent, I found myself telling more and more of our tales and traditions to the wider public, who devoured them insatiably. A suspicious gourd? Tell us more, Oliver. A secret cellar in a forgotten basement? Give us pictures. 

One day, as I brushed dust off a case to try and get a peek inside (I was hunting for a copy of “The Iliad,” which it eventually turned out had been sold years earlier), the phone trilled in the self-satisfied way it always does when it interrupts you in the middle of something important. Sighing, I picked up the wretched device to see that I had a message from someone claiming to be a literary agent. He thought Sotherans would make a great topic for a book. Now, I wasn’t born yesterday, so I accused him of being a fraud and went back to my book hunting, satisfied with a job well done. Alas, he proved quite persistent. More messages appeared. Would I be interested in lunch? This was the fatal blow, as I can be lured almost anywhere with the promise of a tuna sandwich. 

Two years later, here I sit with a copy of Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller in hand. The stuffed owl looks at me reproachfully. I cover it with a tablecloth.

Headshot of Oliver Darkshire by Joshua Williams

Oliver Darkshire

Get the Book

Once Upon a Tome

Once Upon a Tome

By Oliver Darkshire
ISBN 9781324092070

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our newsletter to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Recent Features