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The Bookseller

Books are in the family for dealer Pom Harrington, who sells everything from rare Dickens to unique Dahls. Ruth Wyatt reports.

Knowing everything there is to know about Pride and Prejudice is an odd claim to fame, particularly if you’ve never read the book, but such is the paradoxical nature of Pom Harrington, the dyslexic rare and antique book dealer.

“People say it is the best book in the world and although I’m not much of a reader, I do know what makes it a fantastic book, and every edition and impression that’s ever been printed – when, where, the different bindings, the types of paper,” he says.

Harrington might not read much, but he demonstrably loves books. He positively fizzes with enthusiasm when showing me his personal collection of Roald Dahl-inscribed first editions, currently housed at his Fulham Road shop while he and his family are moving house. Why Roald Dahl? “It’s what was read to me as a kid and I’ve always loved his stories.” His most prized possession is a first edition of The Gremlins inscribed by the author to his dear ‘mama’. “I have another inscribed to his daughter,” he beams. “As the family has leaked books, I’ve caught them. The collection is not finished yet and I could probably do with being sensible, what with the house move and everything, but…”

Books are in Harrington’s blood as he is a third-generation bookseller. A hobby for his grandfather, the business proper was established in 1969 by his late father, Peter, operating from a stall in Chelsea Antiques Market. It soon grew to a third of the market and eventually became so successful that it bought the market. The freehold was sold in 1997, which Harrington mentions with palpable regret. “Imagine how much that would be worth now,” he utters with a shake of the head.

He joined the business full time some 20 years ago but had worked for his father during school holidays for years. “I knew from a young age I wanted to work with Dad. I really enjoyed selling books,” he says.

The Fulham Road shop where we meet opened 20 years ago on 1 December 1997. The outside is currently festooned with Christmas lights, the inside is bibliophile heaven with more than 20,000 books on sale. Pom, so called because it was a pet name dating back to when he was 18 months old and kept when he joined the business full time to avoid confusion with his eponymous father, gives me a whistle-stop tour. Well, it was supposed to be swift, but we linger over a 1706 Shakespeare, a Dickens inscribed by the author to his friend William Cullen Bryant and our passage is punctuated by many a “here, look at this,” each accompanied by a story or observation about its provenance. There are tomes that will fetch £500,000 and several thousand that will sell for under £200.

In the run-up to Christmas, orders will come flooding in for gifts for people who have everything (else) and people will be buying presents right up to the wire, which will mean the usual frantic push for the 36-strong team. Somehow, I don’t think Harrington will mind, just don’t try buying one of his Dahls – you’ll have a fight on your hands wresting it from his.

The bookshop at Christmas timePom Harrington