Their timing was good for Mr. Sotheran entered the book trade at almost the exact moment of the first surge in literacy in England, in the first shift from agrarian to industrial economy, when advances in printing and declining paper costs had begun to make printed materials affordable and the industrial revolution make them essential. For Sotheran the moment of their starting was pregnant with possibilities.
Even so, by right no one would remember that Henry Sotheran, in partnership with John Todd, acquired a bookseller’s shop in York in 1761. It was a going concern trading under the sign of the Bible, a local shop, one of a few booksellers in the community. Such shops would come and go, names and ownerships changing, many surviving a generation or two, and then disappearing into the fog of history. Had Sotheran and his heirs had a fifty-year run they would have disappeared before the War of 1812, that they survived and prospered no doubt because they took a flexible approach. In the beginning they would sell both old and new books and later, for a time, drinks. Some fifty years on Thomas Sotheran moved into London and began to trade under the Sotheran name as dealers in the antiquarian, rare and used books they continue to sell today. For the first hundred years in London they would be sited at the epicenter of human development and make the most of it.
Underpinning all would be increasing literacy and national wealth. The printed word was in demand. When public libraries in the 1830s began to proliferate, in replacement of private lending associations, Sotheran became a primary source for them. When collectors emerged in the 1860s, they developed a presence to supply them, as well as the more casual passing customers known as "carriage trade." Rising prices then brought important private libraries into the market and the firm, now long established, was well positioned to represent owners of country house libraries wishing to raise money and the nouveau riche or 'newly-wealthy middle-class buyers looking to acquire. Even then they were an old company and longevity has its rewards, the most valuable of which is to earn and enjoy the confidence of the public and this gave them increasing access to astounding collections that they catalogued or occasionally sold by private treaty. They would, in short, be the chameleon, fitting their trade to the times, ever mindful that recession, depression and war were never more than a decade or two away.