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Henry Sotheran Ltd

Chris Saunders is the managing director of Henry Sotheran Ltd, the country’s oldest antiquarian bookseller. He is also a freelance writer who has written two small books on Edward Thomas, numerous articles and a couple of poems. He runs the literary blog Speaks Volumes. You can hear him discussing the world of antiquarian and second-hand bookselling in our podcast, Episode 12, ‘Slightly Foxed – But Still Desirable’.  Here he gives us a personal tour of Sotheran’s and shares his recommended reads, dream bookshop party guests and favourite Slightly Foxed publication.

Please tell us about your bookshop. What makes it special?

Henry Sotheran Ltd is the oldest antiquarian bookdealer in the UK, and probably the whole of Europe. We’ve been around since 1761 and we’ve been in our present shop since 1936, which is pretty special in itself. We’ve got a long and impressive history – we bought Charles Dickens’s library when he died, and helped the Folger Library start its amazing collection of Shakespeare first folios. However we like to think we’ve moved with the times – we’re friendly and approachable, we’re good at social media, and we’re full of character (and characters).

What first inspired you to become a bookseller?

Having exhausted all other possibilities, I couldn’t think of any other job that would make me happy. I had spent pretty much my entire childhood immersed in books. I had taken my academic studies to ludicrous extremes so that I could sit around reading. I loved nothing more than leafing through ancient volumes of obscure poetry in dark rooms and then buying them. I don’t know why I denied it to myself for so long, but it all came to a head when I had a miserable job programming playlists for pub music systems. In an uncharacteristic fit of initiative I sent letters to all kinds of bookdealers asking for any sort of job. Sotheran’s had an opening for a Saturday boy (I was 30, but never mind) and 19 years later, I am still here.

What are your all-time favourite reads and why?

I don’t suppose it is a surprise that as an antique bookdealer I favour books mainly by people who are long dead. I love the Victorian novel – I always come back to Middlemarch by George Eliot for its depth and wisdom, and The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy for its simmering tragedy. Edward Thomas is the most wonderful poet of the countryside, but also of the difficulties of human connection. Robert Francis’s Travelling in Amherst is a little-known but hugely inspiring diary by a poet who wanted to live a quiet life on his own terms. I recently binged on Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet novels – I love a novelist who can create their own world and people it so convincingly.

Who would be your dream bookshop party guests?

I found this a difficult question, because so many of my favourite authors would have been quite awkward party guests, so I threw it open to my colleagues. We have rather a strange crowd coming – Dorothy Parker and P.G. Wodehouse are providing the jokes, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Elizabeth Gilbert and Kahlil Gibran the soul (and good dips, I hope). I have always suspected that Samuel Beckett would be a good laugh, he was actually very funny and loved cricket. He could talk sport over a few drinks with literature’s greatest goalkeeper, Albert Camus.

Who has been your favourite customer/what is your favourite bookshop anecdote?

A shop that has been around for as long as ours is full to the brim with anecdotes, a lot of which are to be found in Oliver Darkshire’s book Once Upon A Tome. My personal favourite, though, happened about fifteen years ago when we put on an exhibition of Edward Lear’s parrot plates. A lady brought her pet parrot to the preview night. She rode on the Bakerloo line with her parrot perched on her shoulder, attached by a collar and lead looped around her neck. I dread to think what would have happened to her if it had tried to take off suddenly, but it was a very well behaved avian and I think it liked seeing its relatives on the walls.

What are your top picks for spring 2023?

I am not qualified to talk about new publications because they are mainly by living people, but I can say that we have a whole load of spooky books by the likes of Wilkie Collins, Edgar Allan Poe and George du Maurier coming in, so Spring 2023 looks set to be a celebration of the esoteric and the weird. That pretty much sums up every day at Sotheran’s, actually.

What is your favourite Slightly Foxed publication and why?

I was introduced to the work of Eric Newby through Slightly Foxed’s edition of Love and War in the Apennines, which I absolutely loved. The man was a great storyteller, and the book is by turns suspenseful, funny and touching. Of course, the book itself is a lovely object. If we sold new books, these are the kind of new books we would sell.

Henry Sotheran Ltd
Instagram @sotherans_piccadilly
Twitter @Sotherans

2-5 Sackville Sreet

Bookshop of the Quarter, Sotherans

Bookshop of the Quarter: Spring 2023

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