Once Upon a Tome: The misadventures of a rare bookseller

by Oliver Darkshire

Hardcover, 2022



Call number



Bantam Press (2022), Edition: 1, 256 pages


Biography & Autobiography. Language Arts. Nonfiction. Humor (Nonfiction.) Some years ago, Oliver Darkshire stepped into the hushed interior of Henry Sotheran Ltd (est. 1761) to apply for a job. Allured by the smell of old books and the temptation of a management-approved afternoon nap, Darkshire was soon unteetering stacks of first editions and placating the store's resident ghost (the late Mr. Sotheran, hit by a tram). A novice in this ancient, potentially haunted establishment, Darkshire describes Sotheran's brushes with history (Dickens, the Titanic), its joyous disorganization, and the unspoken rules of its gleefully old-fashioned staff, whose mere glance may cause the computer to burst into flames. As Darkshire gains confidence and experience, he shares trivia about ancient editions and explores the strange space that books occupy in our lives-where old books often have strong sentimental value, but rarely a commercial one. By turns unhinged and earnest, Once Upon a Tome is the colorful story of life in one of the world's oldest bookshops and a love letter to the benign, unruly world of antiquarian bookselling, where to be uncommon or strange is the best possible compliment.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member shelleyraec
Once Upon a Tome is a charming account from Oliver Darkshire of his experience working at Sotheran’s Rare Books and Prints, one of the world’s oldest bookstores.

Founded in York in 1761, Sotheran’s moved to London in 1815, eventually settling into premises in Sackville Street, just off
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Piccadilly in the heart of London's West End. The store is laid out of three floors, crowded not only with old and rare books, but also magazines, art, maps, and antique bric-a-brac, including a cursed lectern.

Having fled an administrative job in a legal firm to avoid being fired, Oliver joined the staff, aged 20, as a bookseller apprentice. He’d no real intention of remaining in the job for long but stayed for a decade. (Oliver has now left Sotheran’s, moving to the country with his husband, though he still maintains the store’s Twitter feed @Sotherans which he popularised.)

Told through a series of roughly chronological vignettes, Oliver writes warmly about his colleagues, especially his canny late mentor, James; cheekily of his customers categorised as ‘smaugs’, ‘Dracula’s’ or one of a variety of ‘cryptids’; and earnestly of the vagaries of rare bookselling. I found his stories of cataloguing, bookrunners, home visits, ghosts and secret cellars entertaining, and his insights into the store’s trade interesting.

Comparisons to the memoirs of Edinburgh rare bookseller Shaun Bythell are inevitable, and I think Once Upon a Time comes out ahead. Darkshire writes with more evident affection for the store, its trade and its customers, though perhaps that is in part the privilege of being an employee rather than the owner.

A witty, candid, and tender book, Once Upon a Tome is sure to delight bibliophiles everywhere.
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LibraryThing member BridgetteS
Once Upon a Tome is a fun book to read! Witty, humorous and relatable if you work (or worked) in a bookstore. Enjoyed the memoir very much. Highly recommend.
LibraryThing member bell7
Oliver Darkshire writes about the wild and woolly world of antiquarian book selling at Sotherans in this humorous memoir of his time there as an apprentice bookseller.

From the odd ducks who work at the store to the memorable customers and everything in between, this is a delightful read. If you
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like books about books and the people who love them, I highly recommend it.
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LibraryThing member spinsterrevival
This was a very fun and charming listen full of anecdotes about weird people and the rare bookselling world.
LibraryThing member kayanelson
This is a nice little memoir about working at a rare and antiquian bookstore. Some of the anecdotes are cute and funny. But the book dragged just a little. All I could think about was clearing out the store and organizing the shelves for them.
LibraryThing member witchyrichy
While The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller is reminiscent of Shaun Bythell's books about life in the Wigtown bookshop, Oliver Darkshire is more likely to be making fun of himself rather than the customers. There are a few with whom he spars but many of his tales focus on the internal workings of
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Sotheran's, reportedly the oldest bookstore in the world. Signing on as an apprentice with no experience of bookselling, Darkshire learns in fits and starts from his quirky boss and co-workers. Darkshire has a dry sense of humor, punctuating his prose with silly and sometimes outrageous descriptions, then ending with the perfect punchline.
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LibraryThing member Dabble58
This is a delightful amuse-bouche of a book that unfortunately has made me examine my entire past life and regret I didn’t follow my heart and work at a bookshop, particularly a used bookshop. Oliver Darkshire has a light touch, bringing humour to the teetering near disaster of Sotheran books,
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the self-proclaimed Oldest Bookshop in the World. (It has been around since 1761, so they might be close to right).
He reminded me of my experiences in London, UK, with the odd light switches and the terrifying open wooden one person elevators. Cellars in London have way too much history in them, as well as dangerous wiring and century-old spiders. He also reminded me of the exotic experience that is Doull’s books in Dartmouth, NS, a place that Sotheran sounds significantly like- and a place I can never enter without being overcome by the need to buy a book on cheese or skeet-shooting or a novel by a forgotten author. Used book stores are the best places in the world.
Darkshire’s vignettes about the shop create that feeling of excitement one gets when stepping over the threshold of a used book store. Adventure awaits!
There’s magic in his description of the antiquarian bookseller’s world, but the best stories are about the people who work in it and the characters who sidle in to try to sell books or demand that they be allowed to sniff them or want one for a present but don’t know on what topic. Laughed out loud a few times, and anyone with retail experience will enjoy the various techniques used to deal with customers. Loved the names he assigned the various clientele.
My only complaint about the book is that it was too short. I wanted to linger in Sotheran’s longer, check that cupboard that hadn’t been opened in decades and see what hid there, see how many desks were concealed…find the gourds….
A fun read, and a wistful one. Many used book stores are barely clinging on these days- and what a terrible loss if we should have to live without them.
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Physical description

256 p.; 8.74 inches


1787636046 / 9781787636040
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