Inside Peter Harrington’s treasure trove of rare books

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  • Kim Jones
    British designer
 (Peter Harrington)
(Peter Harrington)

We are the temporary keepers of these objects,’ says Pom Harrington. ‘We source them, provide context and understanding, and then they go off into somebody’s collection.’

Harrington is the owner of Peter Harrington, a London-based dealership of antiquarian literary gems that has quietly become the go-to store for the fashion world. Burberry executives have used them for high-end gifting, and the late Karl Lagerfeld used to buy ‘10 to 15 books a month’ from the shop (‘mostly modernist poetry and [James] Joyce,’ says Harrington). Another convert is Dior men’s creative director Kim Jones, for whom Harrington has dug up countless first editions of literary classics.

‘Kim came in two years ago looking for a very specific Virginia Woolf book,’ recalls Sammy Jay, the establishment’s literary specialist. ‘It was a copy of Jacob’s Room, inscribed to her sister, Vanessa. It’s a fantastic thing — we put it in front of him and his eyes lit up. It was immediately obvious he really cared about this stuff.’

A long-time Woolf obsessive, Jones promptly enlisted Jay to create a book-themed show for Fendi back in January, at which models walked between shelves heaving with Peter Harrington-sourced rare volumes. Why exactly are fashion’s great and good so taken with dusty, centuries-old tomes? ‘The uniqueness of the items we stock definitely appeals to designers,’ Jay explains. ‘A lot of the best things never go to auction — that’s why people like Kim use us. But many of the books are craft objects themselves: whether it’s illustrations or the material of the jackets. The marbled covers of [Woolf’s early books] inspired the cloth Kim used for the Fendi show.’

“It’s funny: rare books are becoming cool — and someone like Kim Jones is a big part of why”

Jones and Peter Harrington collaborated once again this month for an exhibition preceding Dior’s fall 2022 men’s fashion show staged in Olympia. Inspired by the designer’s sprawling collection of ‘Beat’ literature, the event showcased rare editions of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, a book of Arthur Rimbaud poetry inscribed to Jones from Kate Moss, and all manner of other Beat-related paraphernalia, painstakingly sourced by the dealership.

‘I was at a collector’s house in New York and they pulled out some Velvet Underground lyric sheets, hand-corrected by Lou Reed,’ Jay grins. ‘I thought: “I know someone who’ll like these…”’ Sure enough, Jones was smitten, and the papers were among the show’s star items.

Even over Zoom, Harrington and Jay are lively company, fizzing with passion for what they do. Understandable, since it essentially amounts to treasure hunting. The pair scour the globe, keeping their eyes peeled for literary gold. ‘You go through an awful lot of rubbish to find the gems,’ chuckles Harrington. ‘I was at a fleapit book fair once and found a funny old volume mixed in with the new books. It turned out to be a 16th-century book on navigation — only a few copies known. I ended up selling it for £30,000.’ Small fry compared with his most prized find: a history of the American Revolution, signed by George Washington, which fetched more than £5 million. ‘“Association copies” [a copy owned by someone linked to the book] excite me the most,’ Jay says. ‘We handled Sylvia Plath’s edition of Dylan Thomas’s poetry — full of her notes and underlinings. That book was part of the process of her inspiration.’

This attention to detail and focus on the ‘unique’ is, for Harrington, what makes rare books and fashion such natural bedfellows. ‘Rare book collecting has an image of elbow pads and grey-haired gentlemen, but that’s changing,’ he says. ‘It’s funny: rare books are becoming cool — and someone like Kim is a big part of why.’

peterharrington.co.uk

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