Bright Young Things: Jonathan Kearns

Our series profiling the next generation of antiquarian booksellers continues today with Jonathan Kearns of Adrian Harrington in London. Jonathan also runs the Bibliodeviancy blog.

me1.jpg NP: How did you get started in rare books?

JK: I ended up in London as a vagrant after a stint in Eastern Europe as The Worst English Teacher on The Planet™ and got an emergency job in a bar frequented by drunken book-dealers in London’s Chinatown. They decided I was overworked and underpaid as a barman and invited me to experience the same conditions in the book trade. I started out at Any Amount of Books on Charing Cross Road back when collectors used to queue round the block to get their hands on our latest stock and I was eagerly hanging on the coat-tails of some of the best, brightest and strangest in the British book trade. I knew nothing.

It was just before the internet really made an impact on books, much faster and more reckless than it is now, loads of deals done in pubs, half of what you bought might be sold before you got back to the shop in the van and people used to run down the aisles at book fairs as soon as they opened in search of treasure.
It was more Fear and Loathing road trip than Antiques Road Show. I fell in love with all of it and knew pretty quickly that it was something I could do, and probably the only thing I was ever going to do at all well.

I loved the adventure of crawling around in someone’s basement rooting through tea-chests and at the end of it being able to stand in front of them and say “Now this, this is exceptionally rare and wonderful. This is a beautiful thing.” To me it felt very much like I’d come home to a place I belonged. That sounds very cheesy I know, but I love the rare book trade and many of the people in it to distraction. It has given me opportunities I would never otherwise have had, and it has done so just because it could. It’s a generous business.

After Any Amount of Books I went on to work for other firms including the late, much lamented Nigel Williams who was a wonderful man to be employed by, and eventually turned up on the doorstep of Adrian Harrington Rare Books. In a fit of probably misguided optimism they employed me.



NP: What is your role at Adrian Harrington?

JK: I buy, sell and catalogue as many books as I can get my hands on, I assemble and create our print catalogues, deal with customers, answer telephones and email queries and try and keep the website content up to date. In addition I run the Bibliodeviancy blog and other social networking, attend domestic and international book-fairs and I occasionally impress people by knowing something useful; very occasionally.

That probably sounds like a lot, but like many small firms we’re more like a family than anything else, we all overlap and we all have our individual qualities and we all pick up the slack for each other. I have a personal specialty in weird and supernatural fiction, my colleague Jon Gilbert is probably the world’s leading authority on Ian Fleming and Blair Cowl is happiest when immersed in alchemical treatises, Aleister Crowley and assorted grimoires. Pierre Lombardini is our shop manager and front of house with a personal predilection for travel books and antiquarian decorative colour plate volumes. We all do a lot. 



NP: What is your favorite rare book (or etc) that you’ve handled?

JK: So many favourites. Working for Adrian means I get to handle a lot of stuff I’m personally enthusiastic about, as well as things that are drop dead gorgeous or historically significant. There have been rare Galileo items and hand coloured treatises on comets and literary milestones in perfect dust-wrappers and those things are all awe-inspiring and wonderful. I read William Hope Hodgson’s own annotated first edition of “The Boats of The Glen Carrig” on my lunch hour once; there was a previously unknown inscribed copy of Oscar Wilde’s “Duchess of Padua” I got to work on; I bought the first ever appearance of John William Polidori’s “The Vampyre.” and recently ended up with Vanessa Bell’s copy of Virginia Woolf’s “Two Stories”; the first Hogarth Press publication. I won’t forget any of those in a hurry.

In the first few months of being a book dealer I was sent to a tiny auction house in the middle of nowhere and, after I’d bid on the things I was instructed to, on a whim I put forty quid on a box of books I hadn’t even looked through. Hidden at the bottom it contained a signed and annotated volume of poetry that had somehow made its way from T.S. Eliot’s bookshelves to me. That’s one of my favourites because it was more magic and luck than anything else, it’s like the book chose me to go home with.

One day I’ll get my hands on my own Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, oh yes I will.



NP: What do you personally collect?

JK: I accumulate books on gypsies, pirates and highwaymen and everything written by Mervyn Peake. In addition I’ll grab anything on 15th century printers, early Gothic or John William Polidori. I also really like Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, histories of the Indian Mutiny, Angela Carter and various copies of Katherine Dunn’s “Geek Love”. So clearly I am to considered and intellectual book collecting what hyaenas are to picky eating.



NP: Do you hope to open your own shop someday?

JK: I’ll be in the book trade for the rest of my life in one way or another. As I’ve said before Adrian Harrington is a very family based business. When I get told not to darken its door again, or not to come home until I’ve learned some manners then we’ll see what happens.



NP: Any thoughts to share on the future of the book trade?

JK: Shameless, brazen, lustful optimism. As a trade the rare book field had to change. The change hasn’t come as an accident of passing time, it has arrived because for the last decade or so certain levels of this business had turned into that joke about 3 antique dealers on a desert island with one chair and they’re all doing very well thank-you. Some of the best booksellers I’ve ever encountered are just starting out and already making their presence felt; B&B Rare Books, Simon Beattie, Brooke Palmieri of Sokol. (Interviewer’s note: Brooke is a regular contributor to this blog. All the names mentioned in this section have been profiled for this same series). They all have knowledge and commitment and boundless enthusiasm for their stock and customers. Ashley Wildes of BTC for example is actually made of pure enthusiasm...and possibly glitter.

As an example I just received Honey and Wax Books catalogue no.1 in the mail and it’s lovely. Really beautifully presented and full of commitment to both books and customers. It’s rare that it’s actually exciting to receive a book catalogue; but you have a business that has been up and running for just over a year and is managed from someone’s living room and it can produce something as nice as this? I think new dealers like these are the backbone of the modern rare book trade, they’re the people who will be attracting new collectors and enthusiasts and putting rare books back on the mainstream cultural map.



NP: Any upcoming fairs / catalogues for Adrian Harrington?

JK: Loads; the more the merrier. We’ve got Chelsea Antiquarian Book Fair on the 3rd-4th November, that’s a really old school, wood panelling and tweed kind of fair, one of our favourites. Then I’ll be in Boston later in the same month working hard. West Coast US fairs in February, followed by the always fabulous New York antiquarian fair in April. With any luck I’ll get to go to Seattle later in the year, it’s one of my favourite US fairs. I’m aiming for four catalogues next year, I usually end up with three because I have the organisational skills of a goldfish.

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