James Lackington started business on a small scale: alongside books he sold shoes and other items. In 1793 he sold a quarter of his business to his assistant, Robert Allen, and a year later moved into premises in Finsbury Square where the Temple of the Muses was born: the new shop had the motto ‘The Cheapest Bookstore in the World’ prominently displayed on its front. The building he chose had been the home of William Calson III; he greatly expanded it. In 1798 he sold the rest of the business to his cousin George Lackington and retired to the countryside to be a country gentleman. And preach. The shop stood under various owners until it was destroyed by fire in 1841.
As well as being the cheapest bookstore (an advantage it maintained by Lackington’s refusal to deal in anything but cash), It was also the largest. It was so large, Lackington claimed, that one could drive a coach and four through it. (He even tried to get the Edinburgh Mail Coach to do so, but failed.)
At its height, the shop contained some 500,000 volumes, dwarfing the size and stock of other shops; it sold around 100,000 volumes a year, garnering Lackington some 5000 pounds in yearly income. Here is one description of a visit to the premise in 1801:
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 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 around 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 around 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 bookseller’s, and it comes out yearly.
(Charles Knight, Shadows of the Old Booksellers (1865) 282-3
The size of the shop and that fact that it functioned as a spectacle of sorts, may have encouraged those would not have entered an ordinary bookshop to enter it (anyone who has hesitated to enter an expensive and exclusive looking shop will know what I mean). The Temple of the Muses was phenomenally successful and allowed Lackington to drive around in a carriage with the inscription ‘small profits do great things’ on the doors.
In 1793 Lackington sold a part of the business to Robert Allen and after that the owners (and issuers of the catalogues) were listed as Lackington, Allen and co. Lackington retired to the country-side and became a Methodist preacher, but the shop continued to stand until it was destroyed by fire in 1841. It is important to remember the extensive reach of the Temple of the Muses and its catalogues: people ordered books as far away as America; it was a supplier to the emerging library networks in Scotland in particular. Given that the catalogues were printed in large numbers (c. 3,000 copies of each catalogue at one point) and sold and distributed widely, the Temple of the Muses was responsible for a large swathe of book-buying at a range of social levels.