Once Upon a Tome

by Oliver Darkshire

Cover image

Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Copyright: 2022
Printing: 2023
ISBN: 1-324-09208-4
Format: Kindle
Pages: 243

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The full title page of this book, in delightful 19th century style, is:

Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller, wherein the theory of the profession is partially explained, with a variety of insufficient examples, by Oliver Darkshire. Interspersed with several diverting FOOTNOTES of a comical nature, ably ILLUSTRATED by Rohan Eason, PUBLISHED by W.W. Norton, and humbly proposed to the consideration of the public in this YEAR 2023

That may already be enough to give you a feel for this book. Oliver Darkshire works for Sotheran's Rare Books and Prints in London, most notably running their highly entertaining Twitter account. This is his first book.

If you have been hanging out in the right corners of Twitter, you have probably been anticipating the release of this book, and may already have your own copy. If you have not (and to be honest it's increasingly dubious whether there are right corners of Twitter left), you're in for a treat. Darkshire has made Sotheran's a minor Twitter phenomenon due to tweets like this:

CUSTOMER: oh thank heavens I have been searching for a rare book expert with the knowledge to solve my complex problem

ME (extremely and unhelpfully specialized): ok well the words are usually on the inside and I can see that's true here, so that's a good start

I find I know lots of things until anyone asks me about it or there is a question to answer, at which point I know nothing, I am a void, a tragic bucket of ignorance

My hope was that Once Upon a Tome would be the same thing at book length, and I am delighted to report that's exactly what it is. By the time I finished reading the story of Darkshire's early training, I knew I was going to savor every word.

The hardest part, though, lies in recording precisely in what ways a book has survived the ravages of time. An entire lexicon of book-related terminology has evolved over hundreds of years for exactly this purpose — terminology that means absolutely nothing to the average observer. It's traditional to adopt this baroque language when describing your books, for two reasons. The first is that the specific language of the book trade allows you to be exceedingly accurate and precise without using hundreds of words, and the second is that the elegance of it serves to dull the blow a little. Most rare books come with some minor defects, but that doesn't mean one has to be rude about it.

You will learn something about rare book selling in this book, and more about Darkshire's colleagues, but primarily this is a book-length attempt to convey the slightly uncanny experience of working in a rare bookstore in an entertaining way. Also, to be fully accurate, it is an attempt to shift the bookstore sideways in the reader's mind into a fantasy world that mostly but not entirely parallels ours; as the introduction mentions, this is not a strictly accurate day-by-day account of life at the store, and stories have been altered and conflated in the telling.

Rare bookselling is a retail job but a rather strange one, with its own conventions and unusual customers. Darkshire memorably divides rare book collectors into Smaugs and Draculas: Smaugs assemble vast lairs of precious items, Draculas have one very specific interest, and one's success at selling a book depends on identifying which type of customer one is dealing with. Like all good writing about retail jobs, half of the fun is descriptions of the customers.

The Suited Gentlemen turn up annually, smartly dressed in matching suits and asking to see any material we have on Ayn Rand. Faces usually obscured by large dark glasses, they move without making a sound, and only travel in pairs. Sometimes they will bark out a laugh at nothing in particular, as if mimicking what they think humans do.

There are more facets than the typical retail job, though, since the suppliers of the rare book trade (book runners, estate sales, and collectors who have been sternly instructed by spouses to trim down their collections) are as odd and varied as the buyers.

This sort of book rests entirely on the sense of humor of the author, and I thought Darkshire's approach was perfect. He has the knack of poking fun at himself as much as he pokes fun at anyone around him. This book conveys an air of perpetual bafflement at stumbling into a job that suits him as well as this one does, praise of the skills of his coworkers, and gently self-deprecating descriptions of his own efforts. Combine that with well-honed sentences, a flair for brief and memorable description, and an accurate sense of how long a story should last, and one couldn't ask for more from this style of book.

The book rest where the bible would be held (leaving arms free for gesticulation) was carved into the shape of a huge wooden eagle. I’m given to understand this is the kind of eloquent and confusing metaphor one expects in a place of worship, as the talons of the divine descend from above in a flurry of wings and death, but it seemed to alarm people to come face to face with the beaked fury of God as they entered the bookshop.

I've barely scratched the surface of great quotes from this book. If you like rare books, bookstores, or even just well-told absurd stories of working a retail job, read this. It reminds me of True Porn Clerk Stories, except with much less off-putting subject matter and even better writing. (Interestingly to me, it also shares with those stories, albeit for different reasons, a more complicated balance of power between the retail worker and the customer than the typical retail establishment.) My one wish is that I would have enjoyed more specific detail about the rare books themselves, since Darkshire only rarely describes successful retail transactions. But that's only a minor quibble.

This was a pure delight from cover to cover and exactly what I was hoping for when I preordered it. Highly recommended.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2023-04-12

Last modified and spun 2023-05-14