First appeared in The Guardian
Now that the holly is decked out, many readers of this site will no doubt be hustling to their favourite bookstores to buy the latest Guardian Picks. While some will make a point of patronizing local independents – the charming ones with the unmatched personal service – more no doubt will – with perhaps a twinge of guilt – leg their way through the crowed aisles of Waterstones and Borders…
There was, of course, a time when these big box/high street shops weren’t around, at least not here in Canada. I recall the day the first one came to Ottawa, the nation’s capital. They gutted an old Woolworths store downtown, several blocks away from the Peace Tower, near the Chateau Laurier. When the Chapter’s store finally opened it wowed all who entered: deep, pillowy armchairs, gleaming hardwood floors, the scent and sound of Starbuck’s percolating in the sleek adjoining coffee shop…and furlongs of multidimensional, multi-topical books lining the walls…unseen treasures…a kind of mod-library where you could hang out, buy what you read, make an afternoon of it.
Despite some small publishers being screwed over, a narrowed selection of titles, and no more stuffed seats, this place, and many more like it, revolutionized the book buying experience, mostly for the better.
Nothing like it ever existed before, at least over here. In London however, this kind of book buying emporium is yesterday’s news. Late 18th century’s in fact. Charles Knight in Shadows of the Old Booksellers (published in 1865) tells us of a bookshop in Finsbury Square, Moorgate, named ‘The Dome of the Muses’ belonging to bookseller James Lackington:
“A dome rises from the centre, on top of which a flag is flying…Over the principal entrance is inscribed “Cheapest Booksellers in the World’…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…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 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.”
Lackington was no slacker…His memoirs show us a poverty stricken youth who showed a genius for selling bakers’ pies and almanacs; so successful was he that competitors threatened bodily harm.
After devouring a volume of Epictetus that a friend had brought for him, he chose to live on bread and tea only in order to save money for more books. Apprenticing as a shoemaker, then marrying his sweet heart, a fleshy dairy maid with whom he lived in happy poverty for several early years wanting for ‘ no more than may suffice,’ he moved to London in August, 1774.
An inheritance of ten pounds from his grandfather gave them some furniture, plus a little extra to spend at the second-hand bookstores he had begun to frequent. Like all bona fide bibliophiles he dealt with temptation in the way Oscar Wilde advised, by giving in to it; he bought almost all the books he wanted most. One Christmas eve, when tasked with buying dinner, he instead came home carrying a copy of Young’s Night Thoughts.
This love of books ironically put turkey on the table for the rest of his life. After renting a shop from which to sell the shoes he’d made, he thought to use the spare room to sell the growing number of books in his possession. Starting with a stock of fifty volumes he spent all his leathery profit on more; soon he was into a new, larger space, and enjoying life as a successful bookseller.
Business boomed largely because he knew how to buy and sell. His genius was to mark every book at the lowest price he could possibly afford. In fact the words inscribed on his carriage doors exclaimed: ‘Small profits do great things.’ He bought big and bold, sometimes dropping tens of thousands of pounds at single auctions. He wasn’t greedy, he was generous, sticking, it seems, all of his life to the dictates of this little ode by Samuel Wesley:
“No glory I covet, no riches I want,
Ambition is nothing to me;
The one thing I beg of kind Heaven to grant
Is a mind independent and free.”
a pretty good motto it seems, particularly at this busy book buying time of the year.