Once Upon a Tome: The misadventures of a rare bookseller by Oliver Darkshire (2022) is a non-fiction work about the rare book trade.
Having tried his hand at a number of occupations, young Oliver Darkshire applied for and won a position at Sotherans, a venerable bookstore tucked away in an obscure London side street. This proved a bold decision worthy of the 7th Earl of Cardigan.
A foreword from Sotherans supervisor Chris Saunders provides illumination as to the text’s genesis: after a delay of only a quarter millennium post-founding, the firm created a Twitter account1. The store tasked young employee Oliver Darkshire with managing the account. The young man demonstrated a knack for memorable tweets. Armed with a heightened public profile, he ventured further into publication and penned this account.
No doubt to the tremendous relief of my editor, I won’t go through this chapter by chapter. The general structure of the work is chronological, from Darkshire’s early days, when he still thought he might escape from his new trade, to the latter part of his time at Sotherans2. There is an unstated, endearing purpose to this narrative that becomes clear towards the end3.
While the tone is generally light-hearted, not all of the narrative is comedic. Nor will readers emerge from reading this text with the skills needed to work in rare books. One will at least have some idea of the practicalities involved, not least of which is the Nazi problem4.
A cynic might say that this is less a well-organized reminiscence and more an amusing, sometimes sarcastic, collection of vignettes5. Others might claim certain elements may have been exaggerated for comic effort. Anyone who has worked retail, particular retail catering to obsessive diligent clientele, will know that Darkshire exaggerates far less than the naïve may believe.
One does not have to be a battle-scarred veteran of certain retail trades to enjoy this text. The author has a wealth of stories to tell, and a diverting style in which to tell it. Readers will be delighted.
1: Twitter was a once-popular social medium.
2: Darkshire does speculate why extended employment in the rare book trade can make one unsuitable for employment elsewhere, not least of which is the fact that some of the older texts one handles are quite literally toxic, capable of killing the unwary.
3: If I explained what it was, it would not be unstated, would it?
4: The answer to which is “don’t sell to even one Nazi.” Nazi customers are like black mold: a seemingly minor infestation became major in very little time.
5: Darkshire has a laudable knack for footnotes.