We sat down with friend of Drake's and purveyor of rare books Anthony Smith for a chat about the world of hard-to-find literature.
How did you get into the rare book trade, and how long have you been doing this for?
When I was at university, I had a holiday job at Hall’s Bookshop in Tunbridge Wells. That job turned into full-time work when I graduated in 1990 because I found that my interest in literature, history and the arts was totally engaged by dealing in large quantities of old and rare books and sharing that enthusiasm with customers. In 1995 I moved to London and ran the secondhand side of Heywood Hill’s bookshop in Mayfair for the next fifteen years. Unusually for book sellers, we had to wear suits and my interest in Savile Row started then. Anthony Smith Books, launched in 2015, is my independent business selling online and at regular pop-up shops in the West End. I am delighted that it manages to combine the best aspects of my previous employment and allows me to offer a bespoke service to my clients around the world.
What is the rarest item you have had in your possession?
Manuscripts are obviously unique items, but the most storied book I have enjoyed placing with a favourite customer was a set of the memoirs of the Marquis de Caulaincourt. He was an advisor to Napoleon and strongly urged him not to invade Russia in 1812. His memoirs were unpublished and lost until the 20th century. German officers used them as a reference work when planning and executing their invasion in 1941. One set of the English translation was bought by Winston Churchill and then given by him to Jan Smuts. They had been on opposite sides during the Second Boer War, but Smuts had been one of the founders of the Royal Air Force during the First World War, and there was even a plan during the Second World War to install him as Prime Minister if Churchill were to die in office. I enjoyed discovering the history and personalities connected to this gift and then knowing that it had found a new home where it would be treasured.