“There’s been a big resurgence of interest in economics books lately,” says Adam Douglas, expert on 19th-century literature and historian of werewolf lore.
He’s sitting at his desk at Peter Harrington Books in London’s Chelsea, with immaculate first editions of the major landmarks of Western thought immaculately arranged behind him.
“I think, originally, people who were working in the financial markets were interested in the history of it, but since the economy’s all gone wrong, they’re interested in an applied way... [Friedrich] Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom is very popular at the moment. He’s the father of austerity, if you like.”
Start looking at old books closely enough and the most collectible specimens have a habit of looking uncannily contemporary, one way or another. You won’t find a finer place to do it than at Peter Harrington, the nation’s pre-eminent commercial repository of very rare, very desirable books.
Earlier this year, owner Pom Harrington appeared on the BBC’s fraud-busting show Fake Britain, explaining how the suspicions of staff at his shop had led to the conviction and imprisonment of a Hampshire man who had been signing dozens of random second-hand books “Winston Churchill” and making a mint on eBay.
In the spring, The Great Gatsby media blitz caused by Baz Luhrmann’s film saw the famous dust jacket on the shop’s first edition photographed and reproduced all over the media. As a rule, dust jackets don’t survive: that’s why The Great Gatsby’s near-perfect one is responsible for about 93 per cent of the book’s £120,000 price tag at the shop.
Pom Harrington formally joined the staff in 1994, at the age of 19, but he’d been on an informal apprenticeship since childhood. He accompanied his father, Peter (who first set up his bookshop on King’s Road in 1969), on long road trips across the UK and the bookish cities and Ivy League towns of the US.
Pom Harrington took over the shop when his father died in 2003, and has maintained its exclusive bibliophilic focus on first editions and important autographs, but expanded the six-floor building and gallery’s remit to include art (Hirst, Hamilton’s “Swingeing London ’67” collage, Picasso).
“At the moment the real top stuff seems to be flying,” Harrington says. “I think we’re seeing a huge increase in pricing.” The “top stuff” — the most valuable first editions — is pretty consistent down the decades: the Gatsbys and Galileos, Hemingways and Robinson Crusoes. New wealth can shake things up, though. There are now rare-book auctions aimed at Russian oligarchs in London. The movies and the “Mr Darcy Effect” has seen Jane Austen’s sales star rise, and Silicon Valley has spawned a generation eager to one-click their way to mint-condition Newtons and Darwins.
The digital world has changed the trade, too: fraud’s easier, as the Churchill case showed; but people can also learn about what they’re buying and see the real value of what they own. Or they could visit the shop and see for themselves the letters from Byron, First Folio Shakespeares, King James Bibles, Joyces and Harry Potters — £25,000-plus for an unsigned first edition, and there to stay, according to Harrington; his eight-year-old can’t get enough of JK Rowling’s boy wizard.
Taken from Esquire's Big Black Book: the style manual for successful men, on newsstands now.