A Visit To the Oldest Bookstore in the World
By Carl Burnham
While in London I had a chance to visit some of the many bookstores which line the streets of the old city where bookselling began. The jewel of these is Sotheran's. Located just a few blocks from the famed Piccadilly Circus in London's West End, Sotheran's has the distinction of being the oldest bookstore in operation in Great Britain and "quite probably the world."
Sotheran's actually started in York back in 1761 under the name Todd & Sootheran (the family name was soon changed to Sotheran). I was able to acquire a photocopy of one of the earliest records for items that the company sold while in York, which dates to 1762, and included handwritten notations for sales of several volumes of Voltaire's Works, issues of Imperials Magazine, fine writing papers, and "2 bottles of Japan Ink". One of the Sotheran's, Thomas and his wife Maria moved to London in 1816 to start a trade there, which would flourish after his son Henry took on the business and began publishing a catalogue to describe the rare book collections the company held. Some of the notable collections that have been represented include the complete libraries of Laurence Sterne, Charles Dickens, Bishop Gott, Sir James Stirling, John Rylands (now a library in Manchester), including books from Sir Winston Churchill's library, and early works of Shakespeare among others. Compared to today's market, several rare books were sold for ridiculously low prices. For example, when the library of Charles Dickens was represented in 1870, many books signed by famous authors and Dickens himself or with his bookplate were sold for £1 to £2!
With large, captivating, window displays of rarities, the shop at Sackville Street brings in a steady stream of new and regular customers daily through their double fronted doors. One would expect an historic marker in front of the shop to note the significance (me being an American, where a sign is posted for anything remotely historic), but then again this is London, one of the oldest cities in the world.