'Small profits do great things'

Another ambitious son of Crispin was James Lackington (1746-1815) (Figure 20.2). Born in Wellington, Somerset, to a journeyman shoemaker and a local weaver, Lackington was from the start an entrepreneurial soul. His father was a drunkard and his family so poor that he left home at the age of ten to become a street pie-merchant, after observing the deficient sales techniques of an

Frontispiece ofjames Lackington’s Memoirs (1791)

FIGURE 20.2 Frontispiece ofjames Lackington’s Memoirs (1791).

elderly pie hawker, whom he put out of business.” Four years later he took up his father’s trade, becoming apprentice to a shoemaker in nearby Taunton. In 1768 he moved to Bristol, where he met his cobbling partner John Jones. What money they did not spend on women went on buying second-hand books. In 1773, they relocated to London. Following the death of his wife, Nancy, his grandfather died in the same year, leaving a legacy of £10 with which they opened their first bookshop in East London. They sold books they had collected over the years, supplemented by newly purchased second-hand stock bought with an interest-free loan of £5 from local Methodists. Within a year they were in profit and moved to central London. The 30-year-old Lackington spotted a different retail method by purchasing vast amounts of books to sell as cheaply as would still turn a profit and only accepting cash rather than offering credit. The doors of his ‘chariot’ (or carriage) proclaimed, ‘Small profits do great things’. This opened up reading to a new, poorer demographic. Lackington was proud to be ‘instrumental in diffusing that general desire for READING, now so prevalent among the inferior orders of society’.34

He became hooked on books in his early 20s, when living in Bristol. He first learned to read as an apprentice, ‘in order to participate in the spontaneous debates on religious doctrine’ arising in the workshop after the master’s two boys converted to Methodism. He paid the master’s youngest son three-halfpence a week for spelling lessons, which were given in the dark after bedtime.3’ His classical reading was largely of ancient philosophers in translation: ‘I was taught to bear the unavoidable evils attending humanity, and to supply all my wants by contracting or restraining my desires’.36 This directly affected his lifestyle:

The account of Epicurus living in his garden, at the expense of about a halfpenny per day, and that when he added a little cheese to his bread on particular occasions, he considered it as a luxury, filled me with raptures. From that moment I began to live on bread and tea, and for a considerable time did not partake of any other viands.37

By cutting expenses he could purchase more books, to purge his mind and make it ‘more susceptible of intellectual pleasures’.38 The texts that helped him were ‘Plato on the Immortality of the Soul [P/iaerfo], Plutarch’s Morals [Afora/wj, Seneca’s Morals, Epicurus’s Morals, the Morals of Confucius the Chinese Philosopher, and a few others’. He then explains that he ‘received more real benefit from reading and studying them and Epictetus, than from all other books that I had read before, or have ever read since that time’.39 This catalogue of old moralists, especially Stoics and Epicureans, is not unusual for working-class intellectuals in communities where the dominant Anglican moral code was challenged by Dissenters. Lackington was attracted by ancient celebrations of abstemiousness and frugality. At a structural level, this played according to the rules of capitalism, helping to suppress competition and desire for great wealth among the lower classes.

Lackington reports that ‘A friend once taught me the adage, (be not offended ’tis the only scrap of Latin I shall give you) “Ne Sutor ultra crepidam”. But the event has proved it otherwise’.40 The frontispiece to his memoir, which consists of a deep-browed portrait captioned ‘J. Lackington, who a few years since, began Business with five Pounds, now sells one Hundred Thousand Volumes Annually’, bears the legend: ‘Sutor Ultra Crepidam Féliciter ausus’ (See Figure 20.2). This inverts the meaning of the original by dropping the ‘ne’, and adding two words, ‘féliciter ausus’, meaning ‘The shoemaker who successfully dared [to rise] above the sandal’.

Lackington’s shop, or ‘Temple of the Muses’, (Figure 20.3) was situated on Finsbury Square (now in EC2, in the London Borough of Islington). In 1810 the impressively domed and flag-topped building’s façade boasted that it was ‘the cheapest booksellers in the world’.41 With a store front over 40m long, it became one of the capital’s major tourist attractions, but it was also a key site in the démocratisation of literature, with ‘lounging rooms’ in which people could read for free, as well as buy the cheap shabbier books on the higher levels. As a schoolboy, John Keats used to visit it and it was there that he met his publishers, John Taylor and James Augustus Hessey, who worked there under Lackington.42 The name and décor presented the Temple of the Muses as a classical shrine to learning. Books could be paid for with minted tokens, bearing its eccentric

James Lackington’s ‘Temple of the Muses’, drawn by Thomas Shepherd and engraved by W.Wallis, reproduced from Steads personal collection

FIGURE 20.3 James Lackington’s ‘Temple of the Muses’, drawn by Thomas Shepherd and engraved by W.Wallis, reproduced from Steads personal collection.

James Lackington s trading token, Courtesy of Bell House Educational charity, Dulwich

FIGURE 20.4 James Lackington s trading token, Courtesy of Bell House Educational charity, Dulwich.

owner’s portrait on one side and a classical figure on the other (on this one [Figure 20.4] it is Fama, or Fame), to encourage further spending. Lackington retired to Budleigh Salterton, Devon, where he built ‘Ash Villa’; having first heard John Wesley speak in the early 1770s, he spent £2,000 on building the Temple Methodist Church in 1812, a repayment with considerable interest of the loan of £5 in 1774.43

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