Booksmart: The art of collecting

Ahead of the final Penthouse Conversations event later this month, we caught up with rare book dealer Pom Harrington to talk about the joy of collecting and how books can make a house a home

For as long as there have been objects, people have been collecting them. Whether it’s cheap and cheerful fridge magnets or priceless Fabergé eggs, one thing that all collectors have in common is their passion for the object and the story behind it. 

The final Penthouse Conversations event at London City Island is all about the art of collecting on a grand scale. For this event, we have assembled a panel of experts with specialisms in luxury watches, cars and rare books. The last is one of the most intriguing forms of collecting. Haven’t we all dreamed of finding a first-edition Moby Dick in a charity shop or discovering our childhood copy of Peter Rabbit is actually worth thousands of pounds? One man who knows the ins and outs of the publishing industry – and the true value of books – is rare book dealer Pom Harrington. Pom is the son of the late Peter Harrington, who founded his eponymous business and, later, flagship store on Fulham Road in the late 1960s. It is still one of the oldest and most respected rare book specialists in the world. Pom has been in charge of the business for the past 20 years but, as The Islander discovers, despite his literary pedigree, a career in rare books wasn’t always on the cards.

TI: You grew up in a prolific bookselling family. Did you always think you would go into the business?
I had absolutely no intention of joining the family business – I didn’t know what I was going to do and was sort of rebelling against everything my father thought was good for me. Having said that, I did work for the business through my teenage years as a Saturday job. We used to do the Chelsea Antiques Market on the King’s Road, where my dad started the business in 1969. I did that from about 15 to 18. Later I started selling the books in the shop and I really enjoyed it and was quite good at it. The selling aspect was what really got me interested. I looked at the books very much as decorative objects. Then I really started getting into why the book existed. Why was this edition done? What is the publishing history and why is it collectible? That was my interest rather than the literary value. If you ask me about Pride and Prejudice, I won’t be able to tell you what the novel is about, but I can tell you everything about the publishing history and the commercial value and what makes it authentic. So, my interest really is about the objects and the history of the objects and why they are what they are.

Rare book dealer Pom Harrington will join a panel of experts at London City Island this month

What is the appeal of rare books?
The big picture about rare books and why people collect them is that, actually, you’re trying to collect it in the condition that it was born in. It has to be in really beautiful condition because shabby-chic doesn’t work for book collectors! The condition is what makes it collectible, rare and desirable. So, when you come across a 400-year-old book of interest, and it’s in amazing condition, you go, “Wow, this is incredible.”

What do you like about the rare book industry itself?
I enjoy discovery. You don’t know what you’re going to find next. We go to book fairs and auctions and emails come in to us and you genuinely can’t work out what you’re going to come across. One of the most amazing books we’ve ever had was from an email. It was about 11 years ago, and this woman got in touch to say she had a first-edition Frankenstein inscribed by Mary Shelley to Lord Byron. We just laughed and thought, “Yeah, right”. But we got it verified and it’s arguably one of the great discoveries of the 19th century. It was very exciting. Another example is when we had a copy of Isaac Newton’s Opticks come our way, which was Isaac Newton’s actual copy in a special binding. You don’t go searching for these kinds of discoveries; they materialise.

Is it quite a niche industry?
What’s nice about the rare book industry is that it’s still quite a gentlemanly trade – it’s very collegiate. It’s still done on trust; there are some very big deals done on handshakes. I can walk into pretty much any bookshop in the world that’s affiliated with our associations, and I can walk out with a £100,000 book with my word as my bond. Your reputation is very important, and it keeps everyone honest because it still works. It’s a lifestyle business and there’s a lot of travelling involved. I’ve been doing it for 25 years – it’s a lot of fun. The other thing that’s really changing is that we’re moving away from this clichéd, elbow patch, bearded old men in business and millennials are coming into the industry. Over the past decade we’ve probably taken around 20-25 employees all under the age of 30, and I’d say around 50 per cent are female. The industry is modernising and it’s definitely becoming less of a man’s world.

The presence of an original dust jacket, such as this iconic design by Francis Cugat for The Great Gatsby, significantly increases the value of modern first editions

“Books just warm the house up and they do say something about you, and they represent what you think and what you’d like to associate yourself with.”

Pom Harrington

How can someone start collecting rare books?
People tend to be interested in buying the original edition of a book that inspired or influenced them, so books they grew up with, or that make them happy. For example, people love the James Bond books and that’s a really good, easy thing to learn how to collect. But in terms of advice, I always say you should buy something you love; something that really means a lot to you, and to buy the best copy you can possibly afford. Loving something is really important. In terms of what’s best long-term, there’s no question that the price difference between the “good” or ordinary and the really magnificent has exponentially gotten much, much bigger. The people who bought something amazing 20 years ago have seen extraordinary growth. One example would be Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. It’s like the Bible of economics and it’s been in print forever. The first copy I bought for someone probably 20 years ago cost around £30,000. The last copy I sold was for £200,000. Darwin’s Origin of Species, when I started, was a £15,000 book. Now you’re not going to get it for less than £150,000. There’s been some real growth, but these are big trophy titles. Like any market, things can change, and things can go out of fashion. JK Rowling prices have obviously gone through the roof but where will it be in 10 or 20 years? In my personal opinion, I think it will go on and on because every single new generation reads Harry Potter and still loves it.

What do you personally collect?
Roald Dahl books. I’ve always enjoyed Roald Dahl and read him as a child. Actually, I think my dad gave me my first one, a copy of a book called Henry Sugar, which is not one of his well-known ones. I started buying Dahl books because they were affordable for me, and it just kept going. I’ve pretty much got everything. I have a copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory inscribed to his daughter, Tessa, with the words, “With love from Daddy.”

How can books and beautiful objects make a home?
It really depends on how much shelving you want to give over to rare books. I’ve done library projects on a huge scale – literally needing several hundred metres of bindings. But what I tend to advise on a smaller level is to pick 20 books that really matter to you, and go and find the original versions. It’s a little collection that goes next to your desk or in your bedroom, somewhere you look at it, and it honestly gives so much pleasure. In terms of an apartment, you can start with that and you can grow it from there and you can fill it out. If it’s older books, you can have the most beautiful leather bindings in great condition. You can also get contemporary books with the most beautiful dust jackets. Classic books with great covers, like TheCatcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby or The Old Man and the Sea – you can display them with the spine or side on to look at the jackets. Personally, I’ve got some in perspex boxes that protect the book from UV light. They break things up a bit – it becomes an art object. We also do custom clam-shell boxes that the book can go inside of. We made some for Kim Jones, artistic director of Dior, for his home library, and he colour coded them. That’s how he likes to do it. Books just warm the house up and they do say something about you, and they represent what you think and what you’d like to associate yourself with. Over time, you build up this collection and it’s meaningful and special.