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            Back to Open Skies

Peter Harrington Rare Books

22 June 2016

Words: Andrew Birbeck / Images: Peter Harrington Rare Books

For someone who started out wanting to be anything but a bookseller, Peter ‘Pom’ Harrington has done pretty well for himself. “After lots of summer jobs with my late father Peter – largely polishing, packaging and helping with restoration – I finally got the chance to do a bit of selling,” says Harrington. “That’s when I got a real taste for the rare book trade.”

The original business, specialising in rare books and first editions, began trading on London’s King’s Road back in 1969. Times, of course, have changed and it now incorporates a gallery, bindery and dedicated e-commerce website.

Embracing change and ever-developing technology has been key. “Even the fax machine was something of a revolutionary concept when it came to selling,” he explains. “We ended up sending pages and pages of descriptions to people, so you can imagine how much more the internet has affected the way we do business.”

Timely and consistent investment in, and use of, e-commerce has clearly paid off and Harrington is happy to say that from the start he was firmly onboard with how technology could help his business. Alongside all this, invaluable lessons were passed down from father to son. “My father taught me to follow my instincts. He had a very good nose for finding books that would sell. When he saw something amazing he wasn’t afraid to go for it.”

Far from the staid existence that many might once have associated with the role, with rare and first editions commanding ever-higher prices, Harrington often finds himself living something of a jet-set lifestyle.

“We’ve been privileged to work with customers to curate important private and personalised libraries,” he says. “The process entails hunting books out across international markets and book fairs and flying across the world at quite a pace. It’s a thrilling part of the job.” There’s no doubt, too, that the right book is a sound investment. Annual returns now knock on the door of 10 per cent with the most desirable achieving breathtaking sums.

“There seems to be a real desire for trophy assets and rare books are no different. Items at the top end of the market really do leap in price with the distinction between good, great and astonishing. For example, in 2013 a regular copy of the first edition of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathmatica (1687) made a little over US$550,000 at auction. In the same year a copy specially bound for King James II fetched over US$2.5 million – five times the price. Last year we sold a particularly impressive Churchill collection, priced at US$720,000, with books inscribed to the likes of Chamberlain, George and Burgess.”

With more than 20 years in the business, there has to be an ultimate find, a totally unexpected standout discovery. “Incredibly, an employee of the shop found a first edition of Frankenstein, inscribed by the author Mary Shelley to Lord Byron. That was utterly astonishing.” Similarly, there must be a book in Harrington’s private collection that’s simply far too precious to let go. “I’m a collector of Roald Dahl, specifically inscribed firsts,” he says. “My first ever one, Henry Sugar, was a present from my father. It’s something I’ll never sell.”

As with collectibles of any kind it’s all about taking that initial step. On that note, Harrington has some great advice. “It’s simple really. Buy what you love. People who buy purely for investment twwend to buy wrong. The special things usually tend to have the best returns over time. So, always buy the best copy you can afford, and keep it safe.” Undeniably ranking amongst the world’s premiere antiquarian booksellers, a visit is a treat that no book-lover should miss.

“We have the largest selection of rare books in the world to browse on open shelves,” Harrington says. And, as any bibliophile knows, it’s all about browsing until one day you happen upon that one remarkable find.



For literary London I’d recommend a visit to…
The British Library, which is also my favourite library.

The ultimate London book in my opinion is…
Baedeker’s London And Its Environs is a brilliant old guide to the city – if you can find an early edition you can see the changes in London.

To find a little peace and solitude in the city I’d recommend……
Battersea Park – underrated, and a great place to take a breath and find perspective.

The best advice I can give is…
Find something that you want to do and throw yourself into it.