James Lackington is credited with the invention of bookselling as we know it. Lackington, Allen & Co. opened their shop, named The Temple of the Muses in a large building in Finsbury Square in 1794. “The Cheapest Bookstore in the World” it declared above the front door. Unexpectedly, The Temple of the Muses, which burned down (and closed) in 1841, has its own website. Literary Hub has a profile, and Classics and Class also has a good piece on the store.
In his Memoirs of the first forty-five years of the life of James Lackington he wrote of his first little shop: “Mr. Boyd then asked me how I came to think of selling books? I informed him that until that moment it had never once entered into my thoughts; but that when he proposed my taking the shop, it instantaneously occurred to my mind, that for several months past I had observed a great increase in a certain old-book shop; and that I was persuaded I knew as much of old books as the person who kept it. I farther observed, that I loved books, and that if I could but be a bookseller, I should then have plenty of books to read, which was the greatest motive I could conceive to induce me to make the attempt.” £10 of capital seems like a modest basis on which to found a business which would culminate in a temple of books, but one cannot argue with the motivation of having a ready supply of reading matter. (Eduscapes has an interesting section on Lackington as part of its extensive history of the book from 1450 to the present.
The Temple of the Muses had a stock of over 500,000 volumes and put out a catalog every year. These were large volumes and up to 3,000 of them were distributed in Britain and America. They had an international clientele. Lackington, in typical contemporary fashion, also acted as a publisher. The first edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published in 1818 by Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, & Jones.
Quite the Bezos of his time, Lackington introduced many marketing ploys which are still with us. One which wasn’t familiar to me is his issuing of tokens which could be exchanged for books. I guess this is analogous to Book Tokens or Amazon gift cards.