Bright Young Booksellers: Oliver Darkshire
Our Bright Young Booksellers series continues today with Oliver Darkshire of Henry Sotheran's in London, where, amongst other duties, Darkshire maintains the lively and beloved Twitter feed for the store. Darkshire has also authored the upcoming memoir about his apprenticeship in the antiquarian book trade, Once Upon a Tome, scheduled for an October release from Penguin Books (and available for pre-order now).
How did you get started in rare books?
I answered an advert looking for an apprentice, which was quite fortunate for me and something of an ongoing tragedy for Sotheran's. I wish I could give a more adventurous answer than that, but I don't think Intrepid Adventurer is really the vibe Sotheran's looks for in potential employees anyway.
What is your role at Henry Sotheran's?
That really depends on who you ask, and what direction the wind is blowing. I buy books for what we call the General Antiquarian section of the store (a very lax category, which I suppose suits my odd tastes) and I occasionally even sell them when the stars align. I fix computers when they're misbehaving, answer the phone, stuff cursed volumes into cupboards so we can all try and forget they ever existed. Everyone does a little of everything here -- my colleagues are all specialists in their fields, and excellent at what they do, but I can always get an extra pair of hands to help me move a bookcase if I need it.
Describe a typical day for you:
These days we open at about 11am, which I think is very sensible. Naturally, I turn up at 10:59 and lope over to my desk to settle in. Maybe there's tea, if someone is around who can be pressured into it. Emails are checked, and one has to scurry about finding all the books that were ordered overnight. This takes anywhere between five minutes and forever, depending on how long it was since anyone last laid eyes on the books in question. At some point, the phone starts to ring, and people start to trundle over the doorstep, so you have to go and deal with those. People almost always choose to interrupt you when you're on a high shelf juggling a number of heavy tomes. Morning quickly fades into afternoon, which is when one tries to get a handle on some cataloguing, checking through the books you bought recently to make sure they're what you think they are, and getting them online. More tea, if it can be wangled out of someone. You end up fielding calls and emails and ordering more books until it's finally time to evict everyone at 6pm.
You're known for maintaining a witty and highly pleasurable feed for the Sotheran's Twitter account. Could you talk to us a bit about engaging rare bookish audiences on social media? It's an interesting juxtaposition.
I have some lengthy and complex feelings about my relationship to social media, which I don't suppose would really fit here even if I were inconsiderate enough to bore you with them in their totality, but it's been wonderful to be able to slowly cultivate this strange, slightly surreal window into the rare book trade, and even more rewarding to have people respond to it with the kind of wonder and affection that is really quite rare on platforms which usually thrive on discontent and bickering.
What do you love about the rare book business?
I suppose I should gush about the books themselves or something, but for me the real charm of it is the general understanding that there is no such thing as a rare book emergency. My narcolepsy comes with some memory issues, and truth be told even on a good day I operate on a slower plane of existence than most, so I find it to be a very accessible industry. People tend to operate in days and weeks rather than hours, and in a world where everyone tends to want everything Right Now, Immediately, I find wallowing inside our trade's odd little time-dilated lacuna to be immensely comforting.
Favorite rare book (or ephemera) that you’ve handled?
People love to ask me this, and every time I freeze, unable to remember the title of any book I've ever seen, or even what a book looks like. I'm doing it now. It might be an odd answer, but I adore Lynd Ward books. It makes my day whenever we find a copy of Gods' Man for stock, it's such a weird book, so striking and macabre.
What do you personally collect?
I tried very hard for a long time not to collect books (knowing it to be an unforgiving vice) but I eventually gave in and cultivated two small collections -- one of early tabletop roleplaying materials (a la Dungeons and Dragons) and another of Northern English folklore. Can't say no to a good old fashioned boggart. I add to them when I am feeling whimsical.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I suppose do what most reclusive people do in their free time: play video games, read, stare at the ceiling in horror after accidentally doomscrolling for too long. I also play far too much Dungeons and Dragons, as I may have already mentioned. It's a hobby that requires me to accrue an absurd number of books in order to play the game, and I enjoy that.
Please tell us about your upcoming book, Once Upon a Tome:
The Tome is something which grew out of my time in the book trade. It's about all the weird and wonderful things I saw throughout my apprenticeship and I worked with Sotheran's to try and make it something that everyone could enjoy. In a lot of ways, it's a manifesto about why the rare book trade is special, and about the everyday miracles required to keep that kind of magic alive in the modern age.
Thoughts on the future of the rare book trade?
There's lots of people in the trade with their own ideas about where we should be headed, and how we should position ourselves to survive in a strange new world. Are we luxury goods retailers, selling expensive shiny gifts? Are we experts and consultants, advising on the rarest of purchases? Are we wheelers and dealers, sleuthing down rarities in far flung locations? What *are* we, and what do we *want* to be? If we want to move forwards as a collective, then we might need to agree on where we are going, but there's also a patchwork beauty in the trade as it stands.
Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?
Gosh, probably. The best way to stay on top of these things is to sign up for the Sotheran's newsletter on our website -- that's where a lot of the new stock ends up getting a first showing. There's always a new exhibition or list of books coming up, and you have to be fast these days if you want a shot at first pickings.