Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Temple of the Muses: Your Ultimate Regency Bookstore

We’ve talked about where the fashionable bluestocking shopped, but I recently came across what must have been the BEST bookstore in London: the Lackington Temple of the Muses. 

It’s a rather grand name, isn’t it. But the bookstore lived up to it in several ways. First, its founder, James Lackington, started poor and illiterate, but he taught himself to read and fell in love with books. Legend has it when he and his wife were down to their last cent at one point, and he had a choice of buying food or a book, he bought a book. I’m sure we can relate. 😊

Second, his Temple of the Muses was easily the largest bookstore of its day, boasting nearly a million volumes at one point. Located at Number 32 Finsbury Place South, at the southeast corner of Finsbury Square in London (east of fashionable Mayfair by a good clip in what appears to be the Spitalfields area), the warehouse featured multiple stories and bookshelves towering to the high ceilings. This print gives you a good idea of the breadth and depth.

Third, he managed to sell his books at a reasonable price. He billed the Temple of the Muses as the “cheapest bookseller in the world.” To make good on that claim, he purchased remaindered stock from publishers for much less than a typical bookseller would pay, and he extended no credit. Purchases at the Temple were purely cash.

Books were listed in an annual catalog, and shoppers came to the central desk to request their preferences. It was said that young gentlemen newly acquired of lands and houses would come shop for entire libraries! You could also request the color of the bindings. Hard to imagine a library where every book spine is the same color!

Lackington also ventured into publishing. Though he retired in 1798, leaving the management of his businesses to his cousin George, his company published Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Tragically, the Temple of the Muses burned down in 1841. You can find more details about this wonderful establishment courtesy of author Maria Grace at her blog.

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