In my last blog entry, I introduced you to James Lackington, a very successful eighteenth century bookseller. He opened The Temple of Muses in 1793, which boasted four stories and a mammoth sign touting that it was the world’s cheapest bookstore.
A key to Lackington’s success as a bookseller was his willingness to cater to all walks of life. Lackington understood that price and choice mattered — both to the wealthy and to the working poor. The richest patron could choose whatever kind of binding he or she wanted for his or her book, while the young maid who had just a small amount of money might purchase a book with no binding at all. Or she might buy a few pages of a book on one pay day, and then buy a few more on her next pay day. Lackington gave each customer choices — and did so within whatever budget that customer had.
Even the different levels of the bookstore offered various choices of comfort. The patron with time and money to spare could peruse book choices within a well-lit area with comfy seating. Within Lackington’s grand bookshop, all customers could feel they were a part of something special. The attention Lackington gave to the setting of the shop, to its shelves and windows and lighting fixtures made for a memorable shopping experience. The physical arrangement of the books mattered. So too did the book’s size, alphabetization, and physical classification.
Women were also innovators in the bookselling business throughout the eighteenth century. In fact, James Lackington had the benefit of not one but several industrious wives. His first wife, Nancy, kept her eye on the pocketbook and did not believe in spending too much money. His second wife, Dorcas, who hailed from a higher economic background and who enjoyed reading novels, took great pleasure in the day-to-day workings of the bookshop. It was due to her levelheaded business sense and her willingness to put in long hours in the shop that Lackington was able to leave the business to her as he set out to discover more ways to sell and more books to offer for sale. Together, they created a very successful bookshop.
Did you know that throughout the eighteenth century, the bookseller who paid attention to the wants and needs of the customer could find success? Various tactics that are known as marketing tools today were very much in evidence in the 1700s.
One of the more successful and innovative booksellers of the time to make use of marketing was James Lackington. Born in 1746, Lackington was the eldest of eleven children and once sold apples on the street to help the family make ends meet. Though he didn’t learn to write until he was older, he managed to create the largest bookstore of his time.
His father had been a journeyman shoemaker, and Lackington at first followed in those footsteps. He learned to read from a Methodist family and later taught himself to write. His love of reading led him to the idea of selling books in his shoe shop. Eventually, he left the shoe business behind and focused only on books. Lackington invested his money in his inventory and believed that the best way to please his repeat customers and to acquire new customers was to offer lower prices. He created a catalogue, which highlighted the books for sale, and he used signage in his shop that promoted the low prices.
He made it a practice of selling books for cash, plus he used tokens to help create excitement. He kept abreast of the political news as well as made note of what was popular with the Book Clubs and Circulating Libraries (the latter of which he began early in his bookselling career). His savvy as a marketer and his monetary success caused ripples of discontent within the bookseller circles. Other booksellers questioned his practices. Lackington’s response was to write (and, of course, to sell) his own story. Titled Memoirs of the Forty-Five First Years of the Life of James Lackington, the Present Bookseller in Chiswell-Street, Moorfields, London, the book is dedicated “To those sordid and malevolent booksellers, whether they resplendent dwell in stately mansions, or in wretched huts of dark and groveling obscurity” (Lackington viii). Perhaps the greatest illustration of Lackington’s marketing abilities was the final home of his bookshop. In 1793, the same year as the release of his memoirs, Lackington moved into high-end quarters in the new business center of Finsbury Square. His shop, which was four stories high and had numerous windows as well as a dome, became known as The Temple of Muses, and it sported a huge sign above its entrance touting that it was the world’s cheapest bookstore. It was a showpiece of a shop that catered to its customers.
More next time!
The eighteenth century continues to capture my interest. My goal is to create a series of stories about a family whose members experience (and are catalysts of) the growth of the United States following the American Revolution. I want some of those family members living in England, others along the eastern shores of Massachusetts and Virginia, and some in Pennsylvania.
There will be a bookseller in the mix, of course. (Perhaps this person will have some dealings with the famous bookseller James Lackington in London — that would be great fun for me to create!)
While digging through my notes, I’ve come across a few sayings that can perhaps be traced back to the eighteenth century.
For instance, have you ever heard someone say that they owned something “lock, stock, and barrel?”
Guns were shipped by the English to the American colonists in separate pieces due to expense. In fact, sometimes only the lock and the barrel would be shipped, leaving the stock to be made in America. (No doubt the English believed the colonists had abundant woodland and could make their own gun stocks, so why go to the expense of shipping the stocks across an ocean?)
To get the lock, the stock and the barrel was a very big deal.
I’m also digging deep into the trade between China and Philadelphia in the late 1700s. I remain amazed — and in awe of — how far and wide the seafarers of our brave, young nation traveled.
Are you a pack rat or a pitch everything type of writer — and in the end, does it really matter?
Whether you are a novelist new to the world of publishing, or a seasoned professional with a long list of titles and accolades, the matter of your archive is one you ought to consider.
An author conserving their own literary legacy isn’t so much about narcissism as it is altruism. Just ask the students, scholars, readers or community members who have spent time sifting through an archive in search of a deeper understanding of the internal and external landscape of an author’s world, or of how the writer moved from one thought to the other, or even of a spark of inspiration for their own work.
Whether you are pitching everything after reaching a writing deadline, or are a pack rat who can’t part with a thing, you might want to consider the matter of your archive — now, today — rather than leave it to the future or to others who don’t know your works as you do. Doubtless you’ve spent time, talent and treasure on your craft. Consider what you want left behind once you are gone from this world.