Literary London: A Guide by Sammy Jay of Rare Book Dealer Peter Harrington

Literary London: A Guide by Sammy Jay of Rare Book Dealer Peter Harrington

A fine book may be a rare thing, and a rare book often a fine thing – but for the pleasure of finding books which are both fine, rare and obtainable by mere mortals, most of us need to turn to professionals like Sammy Jay of Peter Harrington of London.

and raised in Oxford, Sammy is a book dealer and buyer at
of London,
which since 1969 until today has offered a unique collection of
rare books and literary items from across the world. Whether it’s a
Shakespeare folio, an original French printing of Dumas’ Three
Musketeers, or that first English edition of Machiavelli’s Prince
you’ve wanted since you were a child, the shelves at Peter
Harrington’s serene premises on the Fulham Road, Chelsea and Dover
Street, Mayfair are stuffed with historical treasures to discover.
We asked Sammy to give us an insight into the world of the rare
book dealer and share some of his favourite places with us.

How did you get into the world of rare book dealing?

Pure serendipity. While sorting out the papers of my late
grandfather for donation to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, I was
amazed to find a very rare and sought-after first edition of Mary
Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), inscribed by her to Lord Byron. This
made quite a fuss in the rare books world, and when it was
consigned to Peter Harrington to be sold, I curated a small
Romantics exhibition around it at the launch party. That was over
six years ago and I have been working for them ever since!

What’s the most unusual request you’ve had from a client?

We once sold one of the telegrams that General Eisenhower had
signed and sent to announce the end of the Second World War. It
emerged that this was a birthday gift for the client’s father, and
that the birthday party was the next day in Dubai. So I had to hop
on a plane in the morning and deliver it by hand to the gentleman
in question.

It sounds like the life of a rare book dealer can be
surprisingly mobile…

Absolutely. While Peter Harrington is based in London, we have
customers and attend book fairs all over the world –
Hong Kong
, Japan
and the Gulf, as well as in Europe and America (usually New
, Boston, LA,
and Seattle). In our search for stock, we often leave
the cities and coasts behind to take the roads less travelled by –
sometimes that makes all the difference.

What do you like most about London?

I like what an international metropolis it has become and how
eclectic people’s tastes are, which means we can bring in really
exotic and interesting items from around the world and put them on
show knowing they will be appreciated.

When you manage to escape the shelves, what is your favourite
eating spot?

Just round the corner from our shop on Dover Street is Le Petit
Café: French name, Italian food, charming Egyptian owner – a
delightful little place with a table on the street where you can
devour an inventively stuffed panino and watch the denizens of
Mayfair hurry by.

All this book talk is making us thirsty. What shall we drink
and where?

Put yourselves right with an espresso martini. I have spent the
past two years with Mr Harrington on an international quest to find
the best one. Currently a dead-heat between the bar at the Concorde
Room at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 and the Hotel du Vin in
If we are going central, the home-made vermouth at Mele e Pere in
is also delicious.

Where does a romantic go for a good date in London?

I’d spend a Sunday taking a ramble up
Hampstead Heath
, followed by a swim in the bathing ponds and
finish with a roast and several well-earned drinks at the Spaniards
atop the hill. Dick Turpin, Dickens and Bram Stoker are
said to have been regulars and Keats is rumoured to have written
“Ode to a Nightingale” there after a long walk. You can’t say no to
wood panelling, roaring fire, plentiful ale and the residual glow
of literary stardust…

If we do ever get bored of London, where do we escape?

For a day-trip go up to Oxford and see the amazing new
exhibition space at the Bodleian
. The Pitt Rivers museum (think shrunken heads) and the
are both world-class institutions, and when you’re sick
of history you can sink into the local pubs of Jericho – the
Bookbinder’s Ale House
is particularly dear to me.

You mentioned that you also spend a lot of time in the US – can
you give us a few favourite spots?

is always exciting. Definitely try the Boom Boom Room, the bar at the top of The Standard and straight out of the luxury
cruise ship in The Fifth Element. Expensive but worth it for the
view and the surreal experience. I also always like a beer at the
White Horse Tavern on 11th and Hudson Street in honour of its
literary ghosts. For a whole city experience I recommend Seattle –
fantastic sushi, great bar culture (nothing beats a thrilling game
of shuffleboard in the basement of Capitol Cider) and a
reassuringly British climate.

We have to ask – if you had to rescue one item from a fire in
the shop, what would it be?

Difficult question, but we have a rather incredible book which
Ottoline Morrel of Garsington Manor, who knew practically every
writer and artist in the inter-war period, used as a pocket
autograph book – for collecting people. It has all the literary
greats of the time but also surprise appearances from the likes of
Charlie Chaplin and the exiled Kaiser Wilhelm, whose signature
rests on the page cheek-by-jowl with that of bohemian tearaway poet
Iris Tree, who modelled nude for Modigliani.

Lastly, where do you suggest going to get a special present in

You must come see us in Dover Street. Most of my time is spent
fielding requests for special gifts: weddings, valentines,
christenings, anniversaries, birthdays, you name it. Whatever a
person cares about, from flowers to football, from philosophy to
philately, there will be a book that will mean something to them,
and show you understand them. The right book is always the best
possible present.

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