Once Upon a Tome by Oliver Darkshire

An unlooked-for career in antiquarian and rare bookselling brings all sorts of adventures and misadventures in the dusty, musty world of old books and the eccentric types who populate the bookselling trade. Fully engaging and enchanting, highly literary in tone and subject.

Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller by Oliver Darkshire
W. W. Norton & Co.
Paperback | $17.99
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What a complete delight is this lovely little book! Written by a British antiquarian and rare books bookseller whose experiences working in one of the oldest shops anywhere (est. 1761) has humor and whimsy on every page and a barrow load of arcane book trade information to boot. Taken on as an apprentice to Sotheran’s when he suffered failure practically everywhere else, he found a calling and a professional home that would be the envy of any bibliophile.


Written as a series of vignettes chronicling his time from the first day as an apprentice bookseller to acceptance as a member of one of the world’s oldest bookshops, Darkshire’s native humor rings on every page. His dry, world-weary tone gives perfect voice to this explanation of an enterprise whose whys and wherefores escape nearly everyone who does not work in the trade. Peopled by a motley assortment of misfits who would otherwise have no place in modern commerce, the often hilarious dealings with the even more eccentric customers who patronize the antiquarian and rare book world never fails to amuse and entertain. Joy abounds, even when disturbingly odd or even sinister elements impose themselves into the life of a gatekeeper of the dark and dusty environment of moldering bookshelves, shredded and tattered books, and threadbare clerks each of which has a load of baggage, often concealed, sometimes not. It’s a life not suitable for everyone, and perhaps almost no one, save the occasional oddball who just loves old books and the people who sell them. A rare breed, indeed.


Clearly at ease with language and writing, the author breezes through this tale with an alacrity that is charming and compelling. To call it a page turner would imply somehow that there is action, danger and romance. No. All of these are there, but in a subdued manner that befits the semi-scholarly business of selling dusty relics of literature and nonfiction. Forays into dimly lit underground storage cellars, stately homes piled high with the collections of lifetimes, missions to deliver goods and equipment to competing shops and responses to the bizarre requests made of the bookstore’s experts provide a varied and fascinating series of reports from the frontlines. Absolutely enchanting, especially for book lovers, but interesting and amusing for any reader.


A Bonus: Here’s a little screed I particularly enjoy, although it must be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. It is attributed to the philosopher John Locke and I suspect, although it is only my opinion that it may have been engendered by a rejected book proposal.

“Books seem to me to be pestilent things and infect all that trade in them…with something very perverse and brutal. Printer, binders, sellers, and others that make a trade and gain out of them have universally so odd a turn and corruption of mind that they have a way of dealing peculiar to themselves, and not conformed to the good of society and that general fairness which cements mankind.” This accompanied by a delightful Edward Gorey illustration of a person (presumably a bookseller) clutching tightly to his bosom a stack of books and featuring a smile upon his face while another person (unknown) plummets over a cliff headfirst.