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Behind the Books: A conversation with Bookseller Luke Basford

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Peter Harrington blogger Lauren Hepburn talks to Luke about the role of a Bookseller at Peter Harrington.

How did you come to work for Peter Harrington? 

Purely by chance: I left university and, after two brief and depressing spells in the corporate world, saw a notice for Peter Harrington Rare Books on a job board. The idea of working in a bookshop was appealing, but I had no idea at that point that you could have a career in rare books. I applied, got the job and have been here ever since!

What does your typical day at the bookshop look like?

Typically, I’ll be familiarising myself with the collecting interests of a client, sourcing books, addressing customer queries, and working with our cataloguers to determine whether an item might complement a specific person’s collection. Once we know what books you like, we bear your interests in mind and will let you know when something comes in that you might like.

Of course, we also have an open shop so I offer guidance to general browsers, too. Our books make excellent gifts, and I often field requests from customers who are searching for the perfect present for a loved one – Christmas is an especially busy time for me!

And what might an atypical day comprise of? Any unexpected duties, surprising discoveries/interactions or eccentric experiences?

We’re based in London but attend book fairs all over the world. A few years ago, one of my colleagues fell ill just before a flight to an event in Australia and I received a phone call saying that I’d be travelling to Melbourne that day. I rushed home to pack my suit and get to the airport, and just 24 hours later I was on the other side of the world. Very surreal. 

Peter Harrington’s stand at Masterpiece Fair 2019

Has the job changed or shaped your relationship with books and reading? 

I certainly read more broadly than I used to. Our clients have a wide range of interests, which allows me to explore subjects I’ve previously been completely unfamiliar with. Recently I’ve had to sharpen up on polar exploration, printing practices of the Ottoman Empire and Pacific voyaging; biographies and bibliographies also make up a lot of my required reading. It’s exciting when a client wants to start a collection with an unusual theme and one I know nothing about.

If a customer walks in with material for valuation, or to offer for sale, how do you go about doing this for them on the spot?

We don’t offer a formal valuation service, but we’re always happy to take a look and give a rough idea as to whether it’s a treasure of great worth or something best kept for its sentimental value. Generally we speak from experience, but for more complex items we may ask customers to leave it with us for a day or two while we do some research. 

(SHACKLETON, Ernest H.) [RELIGIOUS TRACT SOCIETY.] The Antiquities of Egypt. 1841.

What’s the most exciting or unusual item you’ve bought or sold?

I recently found one of the first books on the study of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. The best thing about it? It was Ernest Shackleton’s copy, with his masonic bookplate inside. It’s exciting when we find a book that brings several different strands together. In this case, a foundational text on the study of ancient Egypt, printed at the apex of 19th century archaeology, from the library of perhaps the greatest polar explorer of the 20th century, and containing a bookplate which reveals a lesser-known aspect of his personality.  

What item would you purchase at Peter Harrington if money was no object? 

The Nuremberg Chronicle. It’s an encyclopaedia of world history covering everything from the Creation through to 1493, when it was printed. It has the most incredible imagery: wonderful woodcuts of angels, saints, kings, popes, and mythical monsters, as well as large-scale illustrations of major cities in world history, such as Troy, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Rome, London and Nuremberg. It’s one of the most important works printed before 1500, and certainly the most complex. Our copy is a first edition and, remarkably, retains its 15th century binding. What’s not to like? 

Are there pieces in the collection that you would particularly recommend to budding collectors?

Book collecting should be fun, and part of my job is to help clients build collections that are meaningful to them. For the aspiring collector, the best thing to do is call, email, or visit us at our shop in Mayfair. We’re delighted to discuss ideas and start a collection that is personal to you.

That being said, some titles and authors are particularly popular with collectors. Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels are perfectly set up for collecting and can be as simple or complex as you like. The later editions tend to cost between £200 and £400. 

Winston Churchill is another popular author. A History of the English-Speaking Peoples is one of his most prominent works, and looks great in its book jackets. Start with this and The Second World War and you’ll have built the foundations of your Churchill collection! Both can be found for under £1,000.

Children’s author Roald Dahl has lots of stories that are fun to collect, and copies of Matilda and The BFG retail from around £300 to £500. Similarly, the Winnie the Pooh books are very popular. Begin at the end with The House at Pooh Corner, the final book in the series and the first to feature Tigger, and then work backwards, with Now We Are Six and Winnie the Pooh before completing the set with When We Were Very Young.

Luke’s recommendations for first-time collectors