James Lackington

513px-1794_James_Lackington portrait

The founder of the Temple of the Muses was James Lackington (1746-1815).  James Lackington published two accounts of his life, the Memoirs (1791) and the Confessions: neither book can be trusted entirely, as Lackington was a consummate showman who sought to control and manipulate his public persona, and these autobiographies are shaped carefully to manage public perceptions of him and his bookshop. In this he was somewhat successful: although self-published, the Memoirs ran to 8 editions within 3 years of publication.

He was one of 11 children of a journeyman shoemaker and a spinner; although the family had some disposable income in his youth – enough to send him to a ‘Dame School’ – his father began drinking and the family’s fortunes suffered. He was pulled from school to help with nursing his younger brothers and sisters and from that moved on selling apple pies from a barrow; when he lost that job, he helped his father and periodically sold almanacks at fairs. Despite his early brush with education, at 15 Lackington was still largely illiterate. At that period, he was an apprentice to a cobbler and was taught to read mainly by his master’s wife and son. This cost him the three halfpence allowed to him from his wages by his mother:

“Having three-halfpence per week allowed me by my mother, this money I gave to John (my master’s youngest son) and every three half-pence he taught me to spell one hour. And this was done in the dark, as we were not allowed a candle, after we were sent upstairs to bed.” (Memoirs, 47)

The literacy skills he acquired at that age did not include writing: at the age of 22, he still couldn’t write and dictated his attempts at poetry to his friend. Lackington eventually became a journeyman cobbler and enjoyed a life of falling into and out of religion. While still an apprentice became a very enthusiastic Wesleyan while still an apprentice; however, his enthusiasm for the religion did not withstand a heroic leap he made out of a second floor window to attend a meeting after his master’s wife locked the front door because she felt he was growing fanatical.

He had a life long love affair with reading, which he shared with one of his close friends, a Mr. Jones:

I had only read a few enthusiastic authors, and Pomfret’s poems; this last I could almost repeat by memory; however I made the most of my little stock of literature, and strongly recommended the purchasing of books to Mr. Jones. But so ignorant were we on the subject, that neither of us knew what books were fit for our perusal, nor what to enquire for, as we had scarce ever heard or seen any title-pages, except a few of the religious sort, which at that time we had no relish for. So that we were at a loss how to increase our small stock of science. And I cannot help thinking, that had fortune thrown proper books into our way, we should have soon acquired a just taste for literature, and have made some considerable progress, but such was our obscurity, that it was next to impossible for us to emerge from it. As we could not tell what to ask for, we were ashamed to go into the booksellers shops, and I assure you, my friend, that there are thousands now in England in the very same situation, many, many have come to my shop [the Temple of the Muses], who have discovered an enquiring mind but have been totally at a loss what to ask for, having no friend to direct them. (Memoirs, 83-4)

He and his friend shopped at bookstalls instead:

I had some how or other heard that Homer was a great Poet, but unfortunately I had never heard of Pope’s translation of him, so we very eagerly purchased that by Hobbes. At this stall I also purchased Walker’s Poetical paraphrase of Epictetus’s morals; and home we went, perfectly well pleased with our bargains. We that evening began with Hobbes’s Homer ; but found it very difficult for us to read, owing to the obscurity of the translation, which together with the indifferent language, and the want of poetical merit in the translator somewhat disappointed us; however we had from time to time many a hard puzzling hour with him. But as to Walker’s Epictetus, although it had not much poetical merit, yet it was easy to read, and as easily understood; and the principles of the Stoic charmed me so much, that I made the book my companion wherever I went, and read it over and over in raptures, thinking that my mind was secured against all the smiles or frowns of fortune. (Memoirs 85-6)

Lackington moved into the book business in 1774, when, after moving to London with his first wife, he had an opportunity to rent a shop at a reasonable cost and decided to switch from making shoes to selling books. (Shoes, I should say, were still on sale in his early days: like other small booksellers Lackington sold more than books to bring customers in and to spread the risk). Over the course of his years as a bookseller Lackington’s own tastes changed and affected the stock he sold, as he moved towards reading translations of the classics, scientific studies, novels, and anything which he felt could improve him. In 1779, after an infusion of cash from a friend, an oil-man, he released his first catalogue listing c. 12,000 volumes. Unfortunately, the catalogue contained numerous errors and vastly overstated the condition of some books, bringing mockery from other booksellers; however, it increased sales and that was what Lackington cared about. His phenomenal success as a bookseller and his revolutionary book-selling practices, such as only accepting cash, buying up large quantities of remaindered books, and not always being honest in his catalogues about the quality of his stock, made him a controversial figure – as can be seen in this cartoon of him climbing into his carriage.

Frontespiece to the Hero of Finsbury Square

 

 

 

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