With the magic of book shopping under threat from three-for-two tables, Amazon discounts and deathly downloads, readers can’t be blamed for looking backwards for inspiration – seeking literary gifts that feel a little more special in an era of supermarket shelves and next-day delivery. We got the lowdown on rare books from Pom Harrington of Peter Harrington books.
Pom’s dad started a market stall selling first editions in Chelsea Indoor Market in 1969, and it evolved over time into the grand premises the company occupies today on the Fulham Road. This is a place of steep staircases and staff labouring bookishly in hidden corners, and it’s crammed with first editions: everything from Principia Mathematica to Harry Potter to a letter from Christopher Columbus to the king of Spain.
If you’re looking for an evocative Christmas present, there are well-loved novels galore. Enduring English favourites include AA Milne’s Pooh series, and tales by Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming and Evelyn Waugh. There’s always international demand for American fiction, particularly Hemingway novels, Catcher in the Rye and Catch-22 – classic books that remind readers of their formative years.
Pom deploys Fleming’s most enduring creation to give us a sense of how collectors get the bug. ‘They like James Bond, they’ve grown up with the films. Now, take the first book: Casino Royale from 1953. For a perfect copy with a great jacket you’re looking at tens of thousands of pounds. Live and Let Die came out the next year, and it’s half the price. As Bond got more popular, more were printed, so by the time Octopussy is published, a year after Fleming’s death… well, it’s only £150. But what happens is, people often start with Octopussy and then think, oh, The Man with the Golden Gun – that’s only £250…’
Pom’s guide for buyers
‘In the main, books have got to be first edition. A second-edition Shakespeare Folio may set you back £400,000, but what you’re looking for is what the Americans call First Printing, and we call First Impression. And condition is everything. Ask yourself: ‘Is this what the book looked like in the year it was published? The closer you get to that, the greater the value.’
‘Print rarity is important. The first Harry Potter print run was 500 copies, and a zillion people want it. But by the last one, Deathly Hallows, the print run was something like five million. People call me up and ask how much it’s worth, and I say, whatever you paid for it. You need rarity to have value.’
‘If you are buying with investment in mind, remember that people start collecting books in their forties and fifties, as that’s when they have spare money. And they tend to like books that thrilled them when they were kids. We’re currently seeing a huge growth in Roald Dahl. Matilda, for example, was printed in the 1980s: you used to be able to buy a second-hand copy for £10–£20, and now they’re £200–£300.’
‘A book will often go up in value if it’s made into a film. But it’s got to be a good movie. CS Lewis saw a bit of rise, in anticipation of the Narnia movies, but the film didn’t do that well, so prices went down again. Whereas Tolkien prices have double and trebled.’