James Lackington (1746-1815) The King of Bohemian Booksellers

"As the first king of Bohemia kept his country shoes by him, to remind him from whence he was taken, I have put a motto on the doors of my carriage, constantly to remind me to what I am indebted for my prosperity, viz. : SMALL PROFITS DO GREAT THINGS."

James Lackington was born in Wellington, Somerset on 31 August 1746. He was one of eleven siblings born to George and Jane Trott Lackington. The son of a shoemaker trained as a cobbler, who sold pies and cakes in the streets at ten years old. He taught himself to read and when he arrived in London in August of 1773 with only two shillings and sixpence it is hard to believe he would one day be one of the wealthiest men of the 18th century. Best known as a bookseller credited with single handedly revolutionizing the British book trade because he refused credit at his shop with no exceptions. He instead took cash in exchange for each item to reduce the price of books throughout his store.  In 1779, he published his first catalogue, listing a stock of 12,000 volumes. By the 1790s, when his annual sales were counted in tens of thousands of volumes, he proclaimed: "I found the whole of what I am possessed of, in Small Profits, bound by Industry, and clasped by Economy".  (Roy Porter, Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World, 2000)

"I have been informed that, when circulating libraries were first opened, the booksellers were much alarmed, and their rapid increase added to their fears, and led them to think that the sale of books would be much diminished by such libraries. But experience has proved that the sale of books, so far from being diminished by them, has been greatly promoted." James Lackington speaking of Circulating Libraries in 1791

   Exterior of shop The Temple of the Muses at No. 32 Finsbury Place South of Finsbury Square circa 1828

The interior of Temple of the Muses was described in this way,
"At one of the corners of Finsbury Square, which was built in 1789, there was a block of houses which had been adapted to the purposes of a great shop or warehouse, and presented an imposing frontage. A dome rises from the centre, on the top of which a flag is flying. This royal manifestation (now become common to suburban public-houses) proclaims that this is no ordinary commercial establishment. Over the principal entrance is inscribed, "Cheapest Booksellers in the World." It is the famous shop of Lackington, Allen, and Co., " where above Half a Million of Volumes are constantly on Sale." We enter the vast area, whose dimensions are to be measured by the assertion that a coach and six might be driven round it. In the centre is an enormous circular counter, within which stand the dispensers of knowledge, ready to wait upon the country clergyman, in his wig and shovel-hat; upon the fine ladies, in feathers and trains; or upon the bookseller's collector, with his dirty bag. If there is any chaffering about the cost of a work, the shopman points to the following inscription: "The lowest price is marked on every Book, and no abatement made on any article."  We ascend a broad staircase, which leads to "The Lounging Rooms," and to the first of a series of circular galleries, lighted from the lantern of the dome, which also lights the ground floor. Hundreds, even thousands, of volumes are displayed on the shelves running round their walls. As we mount higher and higher, we find commoner books, in shabbier bindings; but there is still the same order preserved, each book being numbered according to a printed catalogue. This is larger than that of any other bookseller's, and it comes out yearly.”
Interior of Temple of the Muses engraving by William Wallis, 1828

Roy Porter, Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World, 2000

Lives of Illustrious Shoemakers by William Edward Winks, New York, Funk and Wagnalls Publishers, Chapter II James Lackington: Shoemaker and Bookseller, 2012

Feel free to leave comments,


Hermes said…
What a remarkable story
Maggie Peters said…
I loved reading this. I've never heard of him or the bookstore before. What an amazing name for a bookstore. Thanks for a great post!
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Hermes and Maggie,
Thanks so much for visiting and commenting. I'm so glad you both enjoyed it!
Kevin Marsh said…
What a wonderful name for a book shop, The Temple of the Muses. Sounds like a good title for a novel!
Kimberly Eve said…
I completely agree, Kevin!

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