Once Upon a Tome

The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller

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Pub Date 14 Mar 2023 | Archive Date 28 Feb 2023

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An antiquarian bookseller divulges the secrets of the trade and the peculiarities of life in one of the world’s oldest bookstores.

One morning, Oliver Darkshire stepped into the hushed interior of Henry Sotheran Ltd. in London to interview for what he thought would be a year-long bookselling apprenticeship. Captivated by the smell of old books and the temptation of a management-approved afternoon nap, Darkshire was soon unteetering stacks of first editions and fending off overeager collectors while placating the store’s resident ghost (the late Mr. Sotheran, hit by a tram). By turns unhinged and earnest, Once Upon a Tome is a hilarious coming-of-age story that brings us into a strange and fascinating profession.

Darkshire describes Sotheran’s customs and customers and shares delicious trivia about ancient editions and the dark art of selling old things to the curious characters that covet them. A love letter to the benign, unruly world of antiquarian bookselling, Once Upon a Tome is the colorful story of working at a hallowed bookshop, where to be uncommon or strange is the best possible compliment.

About the Author: 

Oliver Darkshire is an antiquarian bookseller at Henry Sotheran Ltd. He lives in Manchester, England, with his husband and his neglectfully curated collection of books.

An antiquarian bookseller divulges the secrets of the trade and the peculiarities of life in one of the world’s oldest bookstores.

One morning, Oliver Darkshire stepped into the hushed interior of...

Advance Praise

"[A] mischievous account…. Darkshire’s whims and fantasies now take on solid form in… entertaining tales of bookshop ghosts, cursed volumes and unwelcome visitants such as 'cryptids' (those who pester but never purchase), the startled government official checking up on the apprentice scheme, and the doomed health and safety officer. Darkshire proffers plenty of backroom insights, such as the dark arts of 'furbishing' (restoration) and the mysteries of valuation.... Seeking a Christmas present for that bibliophilic relative who has seemingly read everything? It’s right here." - Suzi Feay, Financial Times

"Darkshire is an exciting new voice brimming with self-effacing charm. If you consider yourself a book aficionado, this is your Coachella." - Caitlin Doughty, best-selling author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

"An enchanting billet-doux to an arcane and eccentric world. Every page is a pleasure." - Lindsey Fitzharris, best-selling author of The Facemaker

"Peculiarly hilarious and/or hilariously peculiar!" - William Gibson, award winning author of Neuromancer and Burning Chrome, winner of Nebula and Hugo Awards for Best Novel

"Utterly charming." - Tom Holland, best-selling author of Rubicon and Dominion and cohost of The Rest is History

"[A] mischievous account…. Darkshire’s whims and fantasies now take on solid form in… entertaining tales of bookshop ghosts, cursed volumes and unwelcome visitants such as 'cryptids' (those who...

Available Editions

EDITION Hardcover
ISBN 9781324092070
PRICE $27.95 (USD)

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Featured Reviews

I really enjoyed reading this, it was a great concept for a biography, I love the idea of rare booksellers and I was sure that booksellers have some interesting stories. Oliver Darkshire has a great writing style and I loved hearing that their story as a seller. I was invested in what was going on and loved going on this journey with Oliver Darkshire. I really enjoyed reading this.

"A long moment passed as she looked me up and down, and her expression turned sour as she clearly was not seeing what she’d expected to see. People have strange ideas about how an antiquarian bookseller should look. I suppose most people never think about it at all, but if they do, then they seem to conceive of a late-middle-aged man in tweed with a twinkle in his eye and a penny farthing waiting to whisk him away to his next adventure."

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Once Upon A Tome follows Oliver Darkshire, an apprentice book dealer, as he learns to navigate an arbitrary cataloging system while also dealing with cursed books, damp cellars, odd objects, and even odder customers. It is both a memoir and a tongue-in-cheek primer for any aspiring bookseller providing a glimpse into what many may incorrectly assume to be the realm of humorless old men constantly surrounded by a dusty scent.

The narration is so personable and charming that you are instantly engaged, and I found myself smiling and laughing throughout the entire book. The entertaining cast of characters range from quirky colleagues to oddball regulars, who Darkshire describes as bookstore cryptids. As a lifelong Bibliophile I reveled in spotting the literary Easter eggs snuck in throughout the story and was only disappointed when I turned the last page and knew the story was over. Well written, humorous, and highly entertaining, I would recommend this to anyone with a love of books, who dreams of dusty book shops, and has the fervent desire to spend the afterlife as a bookstores resident ghost.

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If you’ve ever wondered what goes on in bookstores, particularly antiquarian ones, ONCE UPON A TOME is a delightful reveal. Oliver shares a glimpse into the exclusive world of rare book collections, antiquarian bookstores, the booksellers who bravely work there, and the quirky and mysterious book collectors who patronize them.

Once Upon a Tome is full of self-deprecating humor, book-collecting wisdom, and fantastical anecdotes that I sincerely hope are all true - even, actually, especially, the ones about supernatural creatures and hauntings.

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My thanks to both NetGalley and the publisher W. W. Norton & Company for an advanced copy of this book on life as an antiquarian bookseller, and the people who make the job so diverting.

I have spent many of my favorite work hours in bookstores, and some of my most miserable working hours in bookstores, probably a few minutes later. People who have never worked the retail trade can't understand what working retail is like, and the same is to be said about bookselling. Unless one has worked either summer reading time, or Christmas in a bookstore, one can never truly understand it. Used, independent, college, chain, antiquarian, comic books, it does not matter, only the products are different, the customers, the collectors, the nonreaders the gift buyers and the students are all the same. They all have stories and Oliver Darkshire tells them all quite well. Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller tells of Darkshire's adventures in bringing book and people together, the perils, the tribulations, co-workers, with lots of humor, and love.

Oliver Darkshire was at a crossroads, needing a job and yet not wanting the life of a cubicle dweller he found an ad from a small store, on a smaller street that sounded if not promising at least something new. Henry Southern LTD was looking for an apprentice bookseller, a job that would train on the job, no experience necessary. Darkshire went in and received a call a few hours later. And so it starts, as a new world was made open to him. Soon he would be meeting an interesting cast of characters, and those were only his new co-workers. And a ghost. Beyond that Darkshire soon learned about book collecting and collectors, what to look for and the oddities of the market and what people collected. That was nothing compared to the collectors, buyers, sellers, book scouters and more that filled his day. And gave him lots of material.

This book spoke to me in more ways than I thought it would. I found it refreshing to know that even high end book shops have the same problems a bookstore in America has daily. Bathroom questions, directions, returns, questions about that blue book on TV, that book on the radio about that sick person. I laughed and cringed quite a bit about stories dealing with his co-workers, in fear that a lot of those stories and tales could be about me. Darkshire is not just a funny collector of tales, Darkshire is a very good writer, able to tell a humorous that is funny, but not mean, unless the other person deserves it. One learns quite a bit about the book trade, what to look for in collecting books, and even what to talk about with collectors. And one gets the feeling that Darkshire loves bookselling and all that comes with it. The writing is quite good, very conversational, and flows very well. The book is not long, which is a shame as I could have kept on reading for quite a lot more.

Recommended for people who have worked, continue to work or want to work in books, at just about any level. Also recommended for people who know people in books, and can't understand why they seem so annoyed and tired some days, and others just elated and smiling. This might help the understand why. I look forward to more by Oliver Darkshire.

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