WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Book-Keeper

I love books.

Old books. New books. Fat books. Skinny books. Print books. Ebooks.

It’s always a good time to be reading. But when you go to your shelves, virtual or otherwise, and can’t find that book whose world you’d like to revisit…well…that changes everything.


One who never returns borrowed books.

As Shakespeare had Polonius counsel his son Laertes, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend.” I have a friend who lend books like a full-on library: you fill out a card, and she chases you down with reminders when the time for borrowing is over. I used to tease her about this until I loaned one of my favorites to a relative only to have said relative have no recollection of ever borrowing my book. Insult to injury followed when this supposedly unknown-yet-inscribed-with-my-name book showed up as her contribution to a white elephant gift exchange the very next Christmas.

Well. That was nervy.

I put her on my naughty list from then on. I’m like Mr. Darcy: My good opinion, once lost, is lost forever. At least concerning ill treatment of my book babies.

The Circulating Library by Isaac Cruikshank, 1804, The British Museum.

During the Regency (and eras before and after), books were still precious commodities, too costly for most to purchase outright. Booksellers seized on the ingenious notion to charge a fee to those who could afford to spend something to read a book, yet weren’t quite able or willing to hand over the full purchase price for a tome; the subscription service was born. If books were too expensive to buy, a seller could generate income by lending it out for a fee. A subscription to a circulating library was the perfect indulgence for a lady with some pocket money. The terms of a subscription were clearly spelled out for those who entered into a contract with a bookseller. An advertisement from La Belle Assemblée in 1807 reveals the subscription rates for the Minvera Library in Leadenhall Street:

Terms of Subscription to the Minverva Library, from La Belle Assemblée, 1807.

Lending libraries also became social gathering areas to share favorite tidbits about a newly returned book, offer and receive suggestions for the next borrow, or to simply cozily sit in chairs by the fire. Savvy shop owners turned their stores into comfortable meeting, browsing, and lending shops. And not just in London, but in any town large enough to entice a crowd to make it worthwhile, such as these prints from the resort towns of Scarborough and Margate illustrate.

The Circulating Library in Scarborough, from Poetical Sketches of Scarborough, 1813.

Hall’s Library at Margate by Thomas Malton the Younger, 1789, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Circulating libraries had cards for each book that went out with each lender. Some were simple, as the card for Hookham’s shows at the very beginning of this post. Others were very specific, listing the most serious rules to be followed by a borrower.

Liverpool Circulating Library Slip, Circulating Libraries 5, 1738-1803, from the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

My favorite example of a Circulating Library is one that is still in existence: Hatchard’s of London. They even offer a subscription service to this day. Hatchard’s has been open at the same address on Piccadilly, a few blocks from the Circus, since 1797. *le sigh*

Hatchard’s at 187 Piccadilly, London.

And look at that adorable signage – book straps for hangers!

Hatchard’s at 187 Piccadilly since 1797,

Take pleasure in a good book, lest a famous author be correct in deeming you intolerably stupid. Just remember to return what you borrow.



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