“Second hand books are wild books, homeless books,” wrote Virginia Woolf. “They have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.” Perhaps this is why Sotheran’s, one of the oldest rare and antique bookstores in the world (“One year away from closing since 1761,” as the store’s running joke goes), seems like a dark forest full of adventure.
In Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller, satisfyingly named book dealer Oliver Darkshire extends an invitation into the shadowy and ever so slightly dangerous realm of this London bookshop. Health and safety hazards lurk around every turn. Towers of forgotten boxes rustle without prompting. Crumbling esoteric publications must be delivered to nameless agents on train platforms. As Darkshire portrays it in his humorous and hyperbolic memoir, bookselling is as far from a tame profession as you can get, more akin to joining MI6 or the CIA, or perhaps taking up professional snake handling.
Darkshire insists he simply stumbled into a career at Sotheran’s by responding to an advertisement after a series of failed attempts to land or hold down other jobs. His quirkiness, his adoration of history and his wide-eyed sense of wonder at the magic of books marked him as uniquely suited to the position (which largely entailed sitting behind a postage stamp-size desk by the door, as a first line of defense against customers). As Darkshire leads readers through the stacks, opening and closing various mysterious cupboards, we experience the thrill of being invited into his secret world. Peopled with taxidermied birds, a resident ghost and a band of frazzled booksellers, Sotheran’s constitutes its own small, puckish kingdom. Darkshire’s prose is so confiding in tone that the reader feels firmly included in this insular, bookish underworld.
For the devoted book hoarder and hunter, reading Once Upon a Tome is similar to the deliciously bewildering experience of wandering through a rare bookstore, not knowing what treasure might be just around the corner. Darkshire’s chapters are helpfully labeled with headings such as “Natural History” and “Modern First Editions”—but upon closer scrutiny, they are stuffed with stories that sometimes connect to the subject they are filed under only by the thinnest thread. In some books this would tangle the narrative into a volume of pure chaos, but through some kind of cheerful alchemy, it only adds to the magic of our journey through Sotheran’s. One is never in control in a bookstore; this is an indisputable fact long known by all book lovers. The sooner you surrender to the curious internal logic of this world of books, the sooner the magic begins.