Magic Carpets for the Imagination: Why Books Make Timeless Treasures, with Top Dealer Peter Harrington

Imagine childhood without stories. It would be like sleep without dreams.

When you wrap an arm around a child’s shoulders and open a heavenly book, you enter a shared world of wonders – just like the boys and girls who stumble out of the wardrobe into C.S. Lewis’s Narnia.

If it’s a classic tale it weaves a double spell, stitching us closer to the people we love. While our little one is lost in the thrills – yet somehow, as if by magic, their eyelids grow heavier with each page – we shiver with nostalgia, rediscovering places last visited once upon a time, perhaps with our own mother, father or grandparent at our side.

Nobody forgets their first pillowcase adventures because books are magic carpets for the imagination, transporting us through time and space to teach a priceless lesson: what it’s like to walk in another person’s – or creature’s – shoes. 

Magic Carpets for the Imagination - Peter Harrington Books

Was your favourite story-time companion Winnie-the-Pooh? What about brave Matilda, or naughty Peter Rabbit, ravishing Mr McGregor’s radishes? Probably you had a succession of favourites, each one helping to make your journey through childhood seem a bit less daunting, since all good adventures come spangled with life lessons.

Where better to break dumb rules, defy villains or make mistakes than within the safety of a book – and with no danger-shy adults to stop your fun. (Hence the ideal hero is an orphan, or lumbered with fabulously neglectful parents.) The moral mazes that Alice walks through may mock grown-ups’ logic, but they also prove that even nonsense can be instructive.

Magic Carpets for the Imagination - Peter Harrington Books

It’s no coincidence that the books which children love best are beautiful. As their entrancing illustrations and words tune young eyes and ears to appreciate lovely things, they serve to reassure them too. Proving that yes, you really can enter those scary, night-time places, full of wolves and witches, and emerge with a happy ending – which is a blessing worthy of the most illustrious fairy godmother, and yet another reason why books make such magnificent gifts.

But how to choose? The person to ask is Pom Harrington of leading dealer Peter Harrington Books. He shared his wisdom on the world of rare and precious books, and building a library that will be treasured for years to come.

Magic Carpets for the Imagination - Peter Harrington Books

What is the story of Peter Harrington Books?

It came about because my grandfather was interested in old books, and Peter, my father, used to drive him around the countryside looking for books to buy. He soon saw that they could be sold on for more in the city so in 1969 he established a stall on Chelsea Antique Market, at 253 Kings Road. He and his brother gradually expanded the business, and ended up taking over the market in the 1980s. 

Did you inherit a love of books or was it thrust upon you?

It was the last thing I wanted to do as a teenager! I got into it because I needed something to do and it was a job. I started at 13, packing up books – child labour! – and joined full-time at nineteen. Then I began to learn to appreciate books as objects. Their survival, the craftsmanship, the paper, boards; what makes them original.

When my father and uncle sold up the Antiques Market, they each went off and did their own thing. We moved to our premises on Fulham Road, and I took over in 2001. It started as four of us, now we’re nearly fifty people, with shops in two locations, and we have a bindery as well. The main change has been the Internet – the website is our third shop. Although the UK is our biggest market by volume, now the US is by value.

Magic Carpets for the Imagination - Peter Harrington Books

The first books were extremely expensive, often sacred objects, hand-made, illustrated with care, and composed of valuable materials. In the age of mass production, beauty is still particularly important to children’s books, isn’t it?

Yes. And sometimes the illustrator is hand in hand with the author. Take, for instance, E.H. Shepard and A.A. Milne. Winnie the Pooh was created, chapter by chapter. Milne would send a chapter to Shepard then wait for the illustration to come back before writing the next. The images inspired the line of the story. That is why today an original drawing by Ernest Shepard is as valuable as a copy of the book inscribed by Milne.

Magic Carpets for the Imagination - Peter Harrington Books

Why should we cherish children’s literature? 

It’s where you start reading, with an adult. It’s a great life skill and a teaching tool. The more imaginative they are, the better the books.

We have a lot to thank J.K. Rowling for. With Harry Potter, she really got a generation of children to read, and the next generation too.

Were it not for Rowling, Roald Dahl would have been the most important author of the twentieth century. He is my favourite. Right now I’m reading his childhood memoir, Boy, to my daughter, who’s eleven. He really is great, amazingly talented, very versatile. He wrote for adults, he scripted the film of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang from an Ian Fleming story, and the Bond movie, You Only Live Twice.

Magic Carpets for the Imagination - Peter Harrington Books

Have you handled any outstanding finds – say, a holy grail of children’s literature? 

One of the greatest collectors we have dealt with is Pat McInally, a hugely successful American footballer. He is in the N.F.L. Hall of Fame, and a Harvard graduate too. Nine years ago, in 2011, McInally sold his collection of A.A. Milne, the highlight being a copy of Winnie-the-Poo inscribed to Milne’s son, Christopher Robin, with the words: ‘For the Moonest Moon and the Poohiest Pooh from their Adoring Bluest Blue, October 16 1926’. Priced at £200,000, that went to a big collector in Ohio. Over the years we have sold a lot of the books to McInally – and then some of them we bought back!

Which children’s books or authors are most coveted by your customers and why?

Most often people buy them as gifts for their children. And generally they are buying their own childhood – books that meant something to them, graduating them to literature. For a lot of people books represent landmarks in their lives, so it’s a good way to mark milestones when giving them as presents to other people. 

Magic Carpets for the Imagination - Peter Harrington Books

If we are thinking about purchasing a special book, what are your guidelines for a sensible investment – one that will remain desirable for years to come?

For anyone spending real money, it’s an investment. But for that to be a good investment my advice would be: buy something you really love.

Make sure it is something you can afford, and also something without problems – don’t compromise on condition. Never buy purely unemotionally, either, thinking about it only as an investment. Because if you don’t care about the book, why should anyone else care? So it has to be a book that someone wants. It cannot just be a rarity.

It must also be in nice, original condition – that is particularly true for twentieth-century books. If you have a first edition of Alice in Wonderland, a beaten up copy is worth a few £1000. But a good one costs between thirty and forty thousand pounds.

People also like a book with a personal connection to the author: the sense that he or she touched this. Roald Dahl was very good at writing messages in copies to readers. And that makes a difference. A first edition of Matilda without an inscription costs about £300, because they printed a few, but with Dahl’s handwriting it could be several thousand pounds.

For books to stay valuable, look after them. Particularly children’s books, which are read a lot and they get trashed! It’s hard to tell a child to keep a book open no wider than 45 degrees, but that is what we recommend.

Magic Carpets for the Imagination - Peter Harrington Books

What are your greatest treasures in stock at the moment?

We have a thirteenth-century Oxford illuminated manuscript of the Bible – that would be for a collector, because most of the significant museums and libraries will already have a copy, apart from fresher markets, like Australia and the Middle East. We also have a fifteenth-century book of hours, illustrated by an artist who was working for royalty, a leaf of the Gutenberg bible, and a first edition of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species.

Where is the best place for a new collector to start?

During normal times we do book fairs all around the world: Paris, Stuttgart, Melbourne, as well as five or six in the USA. These help us to nurture face-to-face relationships, and to source books, and they also offer a good way for a new collector to see what is available and build the relationship with dealers. There’s also a lot of camaraderie between dealers too. We trade amongst ourselves too.

Magic Carpets for the Imagination - Peter Harrington Books

What are the ingredients of a classic library of children’s literature?

You would in an ideal world like to have a fine copy of Pinocchio, Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Obviously Alice in Wonderland, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, some Beatrix Potter stories, and anything illustrated by Arthur Rackham, such as Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales. The Wind in the Willows in the original dust jacket would be good, and classic adventure stories like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. And not forgetting Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. There’s also interest now in things like the Rupert Bear Annual too.

Magic Carpets for the Imagination - Peter Harrington Books

Which children’s authors today are writing tomorrow’s collector’s items? In other words, whom should we queue to meet at the next bookshop signings?

That’s a hard call. I’m not going to say. You could buy first editions of a hundred different authors and not take any of them out of their dust jacket, and then only one or none of them could be collectable. What contemporary collectible books, like the Harry Potters, or The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson, have in common is that they are freaks. They had the phenomenal success that marks out the freak.

But the first editions are sold before that success is obvious?

Yes. But now we’re starting to see a movement of real value towards first editions of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. So really you have to wait at least thirty years after first publication to know – when the children who fell in love with the books have grown up and have a lot of money to spend!

So ultimately it is the children who choose what makes a classic – children, and the adults they will become. 

All the books in this story were loaned from peterharrington.co.uk

Words: Catherine Blyth
Photos: Ulla Nyeman
M&H: Jo Gillingwater
Digital Operator: Katie Rollings