The Answers With… Pom Harrington, who tells us more about collecting rare books, precious masterpieces and earning the right to flex
Books are in Pom Harrington’s blood. It’s been a running theme since 1969, when his father, Peter Harrington, began selling old and rare books at the Chelsea Antiques Market on King’s Road. Through the years, the eponymous brand grew, and with Pom Harrington taking over the reins in 2003, it’s become one of the largest and respected antiquarian booksellers in the UK. Operating out of Chelsea and Mayfair, Peter Harrington Rare Books is an enthusiast’s destination for first editions, fine bindings, manuscripts and memorabilia.
A collector himself, Pom Harrington believes that collecting rare books should be fun and personal. He encourages the aspiring collector to buy the books that they love and the best that they can afford, for once it’s time to move them on, someone else will probably love them, too. Here, he tells us more about the collector that he is, Holy Grails and precious masterpieces.
Hi Pom, what is it like to be you?
I usually start the day catching up on emails. It could be speaking to someone from the UK, Hong Kong, Melbourne or the Middle East, seeing what’s on offer, or dealing with a customer. We’ve now grown into a multi-department business, so I then usually catch up with all the different heads, whether literature, travel or science, or take a look at auctions. The afternoon often involves dealing with clients in the US, so it can be quite a long day as we work across time zones and countries, but every day brings something new, which is the exciting part.
I’m also on the road quite often, either checking out private collections or participating at fairs. We attend book fairs and antique fairs globally—in New York, Toronto, Abu Dhabi, Melbourne and recently in Seoul.
What was it like growing up in one of Britain’s most respected book-selling families?
I was surrounded by books, boxes and the smell of leather—all the time! All the family worked in the rare book business at some point, although I was the only one of my siblings to stick with it! My father’s love of books was quite infectious; he was a real enthusiast and loved books as physical objects. Decorative Victorian cloth bindings were his favourite, and he owned a beautiful collection that my mother still has to this day. The appreciation of books as beautiful objects is a trait I definitely share.
What is the oldest, rarest book that you have in your collection?
The oldest item we have at the moment is an outstandingly preserved volume from an early Japanese manuscript of one of the core texts of Mahayana Buddhism; it’s called the Great Sutra of the Perfection of Wisdom. It dates from 760 and was brushed by a scribe in the style of sixth-century Chinese calligraphic traditions. It is much older than any of the Western rare texts that we offer and is fantastic to see something this old in such great condition.
One of the rarest books we currently have in stock is the Third Folio of William Shakespeare’s Histories, Comedies and Tragedies. It is one of only three such copies remaining in private hands, a first issue with the title page dated 1663, that we are offering at £1.25 million. The Third Folio has always been judged the rarest of the 17th-century folios even though it isn’t the earliest, and the reason it is so rare is that many copies of the book perished during the Great Fire of London in 1666.
In your collection, what do you consider your most precious?
We have a Kelmscott Chaucer which is something quite special. The book production is outstanding, and it’s unsurprising [that] it has been described as the most beautiful of all printed books. The gold and white Art Deco binding feels quite contemporary, and the woodcuts are exceptional—it really is a masterpiece of printing.
Is there a book that you would love to get your hands on?
I’ve always wanted to get my hands on Shakespeare’s First Folio, and we were very privileged to have had the opportunity to sell one earlier this year. As for the Holy Grail of rare books, I guess it would be something like a Gutenberg Bible or a first-edition Don Quixote, but for me it’s the element of not knowing what’s out there that’s really exciting. There could be a first-edition Jane Austen inscribed by Austen herself; there technically aren’t any copies on record, but you never know if one could exist and appear someday. You can’t go looking for books you don’t know exist, but they do occasionally emerge. A true discovery is a real thrill!
What else do you collect besides books?
I also collect wine. I started with the obvious French Bordeaux and Burgundies, but recently I’ve also started learning more about New World wines. I spend a fair amount of time in South Africa as there are a lot of modern wineries doing very interesting things there.
What’s the furthest you’ve gone to get hold of something you wanted?
If I hear of something exciting, I will jump on a plane to check it out, it could be going up to Edinburgh to view a Harry Potter first edition that’s just turned up, or a private collection in Los Angeles. Sometimes the immediacy is a big factor in getting hold of something special.
Do you consider yourself a go-getter?
I’m naturally drawn to always pushing forward. We bought a stake in an American rare book business last year, which allowed us the opportunity to get to know the American market a lot better, even though it is one we have worked with for a long time. My natural position is to always keep trying something new.
How fearless are you as a person and collector?
I think I am quite cautious, although compared to many others I am told I can be quite courageous. I am not reckless.
Does it bother you when people collect things to ‘flex’?
I think if you collect things intelligently and knowledgeably, then you are welcome to show it off. I think it’s a different matter if you buy collectibles without much interest or passion for the objects you buy. Essentially I believe you earn the right to flex.
What inspires you?
For me the adventure comes from always wondering what’s next, whether it’s the next project, an exciting new book to buy, or a new customer. There are two key things in the rare book business, which is buying and selling—it is just as exciting to find an exceptionally rare book as it is finding an interesting new collector. And then the real joy is marrying the two!
Would you say you are a nostalgic person?
Yes, I think I’m nostalgic… within reason. The book business is rooted in tradition and if you get a bunch of booksellers in a room, the stories tend to flow. If we get going, you’d eventually need to tell us when it’s time to stop.
What was your favourite book as a child?
I read comics as a child. A lot of Beano.
What are you currently reading? Are you liking it?
I just read a John Grisham. I can burn through a Grisham, it’s a really easy read. But I am also currently reading the biography of an old American rare bookseller called Abe Rosenbach. It’s funny to see a lot of what he was dealing with a hundred years ago is still stuff we deal with today. There were also a few coincidences, such as he talks about working on selling a few of Shakespeare’s Folios for the 300th anniversary of the book’s publication, and that’s what we worked on this year for the 400th anniversary, a hundred years on. It’s quite a technical book, but I am enjoying it.
Who is your favourite author ever and why?
Some of my favourite books happen to be 20th-century American classics—books such as JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I also like a good biography, such as Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike. It chronicles the rise of Nike—from a one-man business selling running shoes from the boot of a car to being floated on the US stock market in less than 20 years—and in the genre of founder-penned business books, I found Knight’s story personally very inspirational, readable and relatable, and there were many elements I thought could be applied to building my own business.
If you could pick three authors, dead or alive, to have a good time with, who would they be?
Renegades—people like Ernest Hemingway and Ian Fleming, writers who knew how to have a good time! As for someone contemporary, perhaps Bradford Morrow. I actually do grab a drink with him when I am out in America sometimes!
Is there one other bookstore in the world that you absolutely love?
Heritage Book Shop in West Hollywood was one of my favourite places to visit. It no longer exists but it was a really inspirational bookshop. The shop was in a building that was an old mortuary and it had some fantastic books. The Strand in New York is another favourite; a real mecca for used books that spans almost an entire city block. It is an iconic shop and the variety of books one can find there is unparalleled.