London Unveiled

great places to visit off the beaten path.

Sotheran’s, London ~ the oldest antiquarian bookstore in the world

Sotherans signLocated just steps from Piccadilly Circus is a bookstore with such a rich history that it has become a London literary landmark.  For one store to have sold a Gutenberg Bible, Shakespeare’s Folios and Lord Byron’s manuscripts would be surprising.  But not only has Sotheran’s done all this it has done much more in addition to being the oldest antiquarian bookstore in the world.  It bound the infamous Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – the most expensively bound book in the 20th Century – that then went down with the Titanic.  It was the primary source for the American collector H. C. Folger’s Shakespearean library.  Sotheran’s also purchased Audubon’s Birds of America at auction in 1959 for a record price – and today it is still the most expensive printed book in the world at auction.  For an expanded list of some of the more significant events in Sotheran’s history please see the timeline below.

Sotheran's main floor

Sotheran’s main floor

Given this unique history and its place in the literary world, a visit to Sotheran’s is like spending time in a great library – but with the knowledge that everything is for sale.  Whether you want a classic from the 19th Century or a first printing of a Tintin comic book, there is something here for everyone.  In addition, a wonderful collection of prints and posters is in the downstairs room which is well worth a visit.

Collectible children's books

Collectible children’s books

History:  Sotheran’s was founded in York in 1761 and established in London in 1815.  In the early years they bought several important libraries, including that of Lawrence Sterne. They also had a print works that used copper engravings and they even sold wine. Having a basement as a wine shop and the ground floor as a bookshop might seem odd, but the store claims there has always been a connection between antiquarian booksellers and alcohol! Sadly the wine is long gone.  In London the downstairs houses a wonderful print gallery.

The downstairs print gallery.

The downstairs print gallery.

Chronology – a few of the more significant dates:

1761      Founded in York
1768      Purchased the Library of Lawrence Sterne
1815      Established in Little Tower Street in the City of London by Thomas Sotheran
1862      Published a catalogue which included a copy of the first folio of Shakespeare for £53
1867      Charles Edmonds of Sotheran’s discovered Shakespeare’s 1599 Venus and Adonis in an attic.
1878      Purchased the library of Charles Dickens (two catalogues were devoted to its description)
1892     Purchased the famous Althrop Library for £250,000
1898      Purchased part of the library of WE Gladstone
1901      Appointed booksellers to King Edward VII
1907      Purchased Bishop Gott’s Library, Bibliotheca Pretiosa (No 671), which included a set of the first four folio editions of Shakespeare
1910      Commissioned ‘The Great Omar’, a binding which took Sangorski nearly two years to complete and was set with 1,050 jewels; it went down on Titanic
1936      Moved to Sackville Street
1943      Agents for the sale of the ‘Sir Isaac Newton Library’, purchased through Sotheran’s by the Pilgrim’s Trust.
1959      Purchased Audubon’s Birds of America

Sotherans Gallery

Today:  Their General Antiquarian and Literature department covers a wide range of subjects from early Bibles to 20th Century Private Presses.  They specialise in first and important editions of English literature from the 17th to 20th century, library sets, fine bindings, Churchill and private press books.  They have sections on sports, economics, children’s and illustrated books.  In the children’s section there are generally collectible books by Roald Dahl and Maurice Sendak, as well as those by famous illustrators such as Arthur Rackham.  There are also a lot of books on travel and exploration.

Other Services:  In addition to selling items in stock, Sotheran’s will help you build a library, repair or restore old books, choose that perfect gift and mount or frame prints or pictures.  Downstairs is a well-stocked gallery with a wide selection of original antique engravings, lithographs and etchings. Periodic exhibits focus or highlight particular genres or works.  For example, a current new catalogue and exhibition of vintage travel posters has been recently put together.

Sotherans Sackville Street

Visiting:  Open Mon-Fri 9:30-6pm.  Sat: 10-4pm.  Open to browsers not just buyers!

Location:  2-5 Sackville Street (just off Piccadilly across from St. James’s), W1S 3DP

Closest Tube:  Piccadilly

16 comments on “Sotheran’s, London ~ the oldest antiquarian bookstore in the world

  1. Hidden London
    November 13, 2013

    What a fabulous place, and such an amazing history!

    • LondonUnveiled.com
      November 13, 2013

      Glad you liked it – thanks for continuing to read my blog. I appreciate it. Ian.

  2. London Details
    November 13, 2013

    Nice post ( as per usual). I had not realised Sotheran’s were established as early as 1761, obviously never looked properly at their shop sign which clearly states the fact.

    • LondonUnveiled.com
      November 13, 2013

      Thanks for the comment – I think we become accustomed to see Est. dates all to often and since many say Est. 1978 etc… start to tune them out! All the best, Ian

  3. fingknitcoolgal
    November 13, 2013

    I love this bookstore too! I once saw a letter signed by Hitler in there. They are like a proper museum, aren’t they? A fantastic place!

    • LondonUnveiled.com
      November 13, 2013

      Thanks for the positive comments – I think its a worthwhile place to stop in periodically and see what they have. All the best, Ian

  4. A Cat From London
    November 13, 2013

    Heaven! It has to smell amazing with all these old books. Like the smell of old books and will never understand electronic tablet readers…

    • Wanderlust23
      November 13, 2013

      I used to think the same then I received one as a gift. I was a printed book purist up until then and would have never bought one and while I still prefer a physical book I do use my e-reader from time to time. Never say never!

    • LondonUnveiled.com
      November 13, 2013

      Tho’ I must confess I love my Kindle when I travel… much easier than lugging a lot of books around… but I do love the smell, touch and visual appeal of books. I’m a bit of a collector of Golden Age mysteries – I love the dust jackets. Ian.

  5. Wanderlust23
    November 13, 2013

    This sounds like book heaven for me. It is difficult for me to enter a bookstore and come out empty handed. I like that they do prints here as well.

    • LondonUnveiled.com
      November 13, 2013

      It sounds like you’ve got a new place to visit next time you over near Piccadilly… and as per my comment to Cat From London i do love my e-reader for travelling. All the best, ian

  6. Javier Molina
    November 15, 2013

    Definitely worth visiting when in London even if books are not your specific predilection.

  7. Javier Molina
    November 15, 2013

    And also they publish some beautiful catalogue….

    • LondonUnveiled.com
      November 15, 2013

      Hi Javier, thank you for your comments. I hope you continue to find some good ‘secrets’ and places to enjoy in London. I appreciate your reading my blog, Ian

  8. rigmover
    November 18, 2013

    Great post, thank you.

  9. CongestionZone.wordpress.com
    November 19, 2013

    Fab! And just down the street from my FAVOURITE burger in London (and, let’s be really honest, maybe my whole life) at the Rivington Grill. Tip: take advantage of their weekday offer that gets you a burger, chips and a pint or glass of wine for £10. YUM!! http://www.rivingtonshoreditch.co.uk/set-menus-and-special-offers/

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This entry was posted on November 13, 2013 by in Famous People, Shopping, Westminster and tagged , , , , .
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