Private Libraries, Curated Book Boxes + Ascendent Indies

A few years ago, I started work on a story idea about a woman who curates private libraries for clients. I’d recently read an article in the FT and it piqued my curiosity.

A library is your story on a shelf. 

– Nicky Dunne, creator of bespoke private libraries.

Heywood Hill is not your average bookshop. Opened in 1936, it was run during the later years of WWII by Lady Anne Gathome-Hardy and novelist Nancy Mitford, of the infamous Mitford sisters. Nancy was the anti-fascist sibling, who caused considerable family tension when she published a satire decrying Sir Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists, of which two of her sisters were sympathizers.

A few years ago, I started work on a story idea about a woman who curates private libraries for clients. I’d recently read an article in the FT and it piqued my curiosity.

The store – reportedly Queen Elizabeth’s favourite bookshop – later sold to Mitford’s brother-in-law, Andrew Cavendish, 11th Duke of Devonshire who passed it on to his son Peregrine. Nicky Dunne, the current manager, is Peregrine’s son-in-law.

I like to visit antiquarian bookshops in London, sometimes purchasing a minor title but more often just browsing. Feasting my eyes on a first of Karl Marx. Rare original photos of Sado Island by artist Iwamiya Takeji. An original of the 1771 infamous Tea Act that catalyzed the Boston Tea Party and ultimately American Independence.

In short, the world’s history, neatly lined up on the shelf like foot soldiers or tucked away behind glass.

I love those spaces. Silent, except for footsteps on creaky wooden floors or the odd throat clearing. Seriously knowledgeable staff working away at tables or desks topped with leather to better protect the books. Such delicious, tactile pleasure.

But, until I read that FT article, I’d never fully appreciated the role that antiquarian shops have in curating entire libraries for individuals or organizations. Whether 27,000 books about cricket, 2,000 books to help diplomats understand for the London embassy of an Arab government or a few hundred for a study wall in a Californian house, these private librarians work with clients to determine needs, source the books however rare and even consult on the look/feel/function of the physical rooms.

Curated Book Boxes

A library doesn’t have to be ostentatious to contain beautiful books. And people’s desire to collect beautiful objects is one that Illumicrate, a UK-based subscription box for book lovers now expanded into the US/Canada, has fully leveraged.

Founded in 2015 by book-blogger Daphne Tonge in her London living room, with a focus on Young Adult titles, Illumicrate has quickly grown into a very successful company with tens of thousands of subscribers and a WAITLIST to become one.

Illumicrate’s book box is curated and ‘up-speced’ to make the monthly title a collectible. They commission a new cover, add sprayed edges and slip-cases, and surround it with book-inspired merchandise if the subscriber chooses.

Illumicrate expanded to include all book genres, although their main focus is SFF (Science Fiction/ Fantasy), romance, and horror. They work with publishing houses whom they pay to do the work of custom design and printing. But it’s Ms Tonge’s plan to start her own press, through which she’ll search out successful self-published books to reprint and include in the curated boxes.

Perhaps an adaptable business model for indie publishers, either on their own or in a collective. What Ms Tonge has proven is that books can have sizzle if marketed with innovation and care. The re/opening of Barnes & Nobles stores with early morning lineups around the block, or this Esquire article on the appeal of book merch, also suggest readers appreciate some pizzazz.

London Library

And speaking of cherished books. . .last year I joined the London Library. The private library was established in 1841 when there were no lending libraries in London and before state-funded libraries were established.

An organizing committee raised the funds necessary for launch by selling founding memberships to Charles Dickens, John Stuart Mill, Harriet Martineau, future Prime Minister Lord John Russell and Dickens’ publishers, among others.

A few months later, Charles Darwin and William Thackeray joined; then, over the years, Bram StokerVirginia WoolfAngela CarterDaphne du MaurierStanley Kubrick, Ian Fleming, Kazuo Ishiguro and AS Byatt.

Almost two centuries later, the London Library is still going strong, having survived some tough times with a little help from friends like E.M. Forster and despite the Nazis, who bombed the building in 1944, destroying more than 16,000 books.

7500 members make up an active community, housed in a beautiful building in St James Square, home to more than 1,000,000 books. It’s a delightful place to read, research and write. There’s also an extensive resource of online periodicals and databases. (They have lower member dues for those who live outside London.)

The Library has seen many Presidents from T.S. Elliott to the current incumbent – actress Helena Bonham Carter, a member since she was 21.

This very funny interview features Bonham-Carter and Simon Callow, himself a longtime member who uses the library collections to research his acting roles. 

The library is frequently requested as a film/tv venue. Production crews go to heroic ends to shoot there as special care is needed for the collections and they can shoot only overnight so as to not interrupt the member access hours.

Even if I had the means to afford a private librarian from Heywood Hill or Maggs Brothers to curate me an extensive collection, I think I’d still rather sit in the Reading Room of the London Library, scribbling away, feeling the ghostly presence of Arthur Conan Doyle and Joseph Conrad and Antonia Fraser sitting right there alongside me.

I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library. – Jorge Luis Borges

Morgan Library

One of my first stops on any visit to NYC is always The Morgan, a museum and independent research library at Madison & 36th. As early as 1890, J.P. Morgan had begun to assemble a collection of illuminated, literary, and historical manuscripts, early printed books, and old master drawings and prints for his private use.

Belle da Costa Greene was his personal librarian. After Morgan’s death, the library was gifted to NYC, and she became its first director, remaining until retirement in 1948. She was Black, but quietly passed as white, and was famous in the international world of fine art and rare books of the mid-20th century. The novel, The Personal Librarian, tells a fictionalized version of her fascinating story.


I’m not heading to Edinburgh this August for the festivals as normal, instead going on holiday to the Miramachi, Nova Scotia’s South Shore and, for the first time, Newfoundland. And I have no intention of kissing the cod!

However, in early October, I’ll attend the Times Cheltenham Literary Festival. Cheltenham is a spa town on the edge of the Cotswolds, which holds annual festivals of jazz, music and science in addition to the world’s oldest literary festival.

But before that, I’m excited for the Toronto International Film Festival (Sept 7-17/23) whose full program drops August 15th. What actors can walk the red carpet will depend on the state of the SAG-AFTRA strike.

Also in September: the Toronto International Festival of Authors (Sept 21-Oct 1/23. Program drops August 21st but I’m producing some events in partnership with them, so I have hints of the full lineup. Hold the dates, because it’s going to be great.

Books + Industry.

The big publishers are busy bloodletting many of their most experienced editors in a bid for reduced expenses, the Canadian government still refuses to keep their word to fix the broken copyright system, and Indigo is in a death cycle. 

But let’s focus on happy publishing news. Delighted to see Leigh Nash, a publisher for whom I have enormous respect, launch a brand-new publishing house, Assembly Press. New indie bookshops are opening up in Canada and the US; meanwhile in the UK, indie presses are ascendent, with many writers including Bret Easton Ellis and Sheila Heti jumping ship from the Big 5.

In our risk-averse climate, a lot of what is exciting, original and untested is being published by independent publishers. – Anna Webber, literary agent.

What I’m Currently Reading.

Gull Island by Anna Porter is some seriously scary stuff, especially reading it while alone on a Georgian Bay island. . . And since I’m in the mood for chills, I’m also reading the mystery novel Lost and Found, by Dianne Scott, whom I’ll be hosting on a literary walking tour of Yorkville in Toronto 10 August. Join us!

Bye for now. Thank you for joining me for this twenty-second regular edition of Letterbox. See you next month.

Private Libraries, Curated Book Boxes + Ascendent Indies
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