Air Miles with Pom Harrington

1 May 2022 by Hannah Brandler
Pom Harrington

What attracted you to the profession?

My father, Peter Harrington, was also a bookseller and started the business in 1969. I first started working at the shop in my early teens and I later realised I liked the sales side – what made one book more valuable, how to “read” what a customer liked. I was selling decent quantities of books before I was 20 and that’s when I realised “I can do this.”

What does your shop specialise in?

We deal in collectables – rare first and early editions, inscribed and presentation copies, autographs, manuscripts and books that have a story to tell. There are more than fifty people working in the firm and amongst them we have serious book experts in multiple fields.

We are also very good at digging out really amazing books. For example, someone was looking for something special related to C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. I located a copy of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis – inscribed with a dedication from C.S. Lewis to Tolkien. Finding these sorts of rarities is a bespoke service, it is not something you can wander in and find in any rare bookshop.

What are some of the rarest books in your collection?

We have a 16th century account of Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe by Pigafetta, an Italian nobleman who accompanied Magellan and was one of the only survivors of the voyage – it is an exceedingly rare description of one of the most monumental journeys in human history and worth close to £100,000.

The other great rarity that comes to mind is Hakluyt’s The Principal Navigations, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation. We are offering one of only two known copies in private hands, complete with the superbly rare Wright-Molyneux world map, which is the first world map to be produced in England. The copy is being sold for £800,000.

How do you source rare books?

Our books are sourced from a variety of places – book fairs, estate sales, auctions or online book marketplaces. Books often find their way back to us when collectors reach the end of their collecting journey – some complete collections on specific topics and look for a new challenge, or they upgrade their collections. We also get around 50 to 100 offers to buy books every day but we tend to be quite selective.

How do you store them?

Our books are usually stored on open shelves, categorised by subject. Our customers can browse and handle the books they are interested in, and our booksellers are always keen to show off what’s fresh on our shelves – we don’t do white gloves – just clean, gentle hands.

Of course, our most valuable books are displayed in our rare book room or safely locked away. There is something to be said for a grand reveal to the right customer!

Which book has left a lasting impression?

We acquired and sold what was perhaps the best Dickens presentation copy to have come on the market in a generation – a first edition of A Tale of Two Cities inscribed: “Charles Dickens, To George Eliot, with high admiration and regard. December, 1859.”

Do you personally collect books?

I have a collection of more than 100 Roald Dahl books – my personal favourite being a copy of his first book Gremlins, inscribed to his mother. My father gifted me my first Dahl copy, an inscribed first edition of Henry Sugar and I have been a collector of Dahl ever since.

What's your favourite book?

J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

What's your favourite bookshop abroad?

Heritage Book Shop in West Hollywood – it no longer exists but it was really inspirational. The Strand in New York is another favourite – a real mecca for used books that spans almost an entire city block. The variety of books one can find there is unparalleled.

Is it challenging to move fragile books around the world?

Surprisingly not! We use tried and tested packaging methods and lightweight trunks. Books are very movable and not as fragile as you think. The most valuable books have custom-made protective boxes.

What has been your most rewarding travel experience?

I remember traveling to Tokyo for a book fair and then heading to Kyoto, followed by a ski trip to Niseko. I really enjoyed the scenery – you can see Mt Yotei (a sort of mini Mt Fuji) – the region has amazing skiing, wonderful onsens and great food.

And most challenging?

We had to buy a library in Maui a few years ago but I had to do the whole trip in three days. Fly through San Francisco, view the books, get them all packed up and flown back to the UK. Maui is not the quickest place in the world to get to, and definitely not the quickest place to do a round trip to in three days!

One of the items in the collection was a large, framed picture that was too big to be shipped and too valuable to go into the hold. I remember having to talk my way onto the plane with it as hand luggage. I got right to the gate and almost had it taken off me. But then a helpful member of the crew came to my rescue, and I got the picture through.

How do you see the rare book trade evolving?

Antique book shops have shed their reputation as dim caverns filled with shelves of dusty books. The internet has really revolutionised every aspect of the industry. However, we still find that when it comes to rare books, customers love the feel of holding history in their hands and that’s what they are really paying for.

What's your dream destination?

I’ve not yet been to South America. I’d love to visit the Galapagos Islands, the Andes mountains and Buenos Aires.

What's your indispensable travel gadget?

My iPad, Bose headphones and all the various adapters and cables.

What's your IFE pick?

The latest movies are my guilty pleasure.

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