It would seem not to be so very difficult a matter to buy an article for fifty cents and sell it for seventy-five. Business men know, however, that to live and thrive by buying and selling requires a special gift, which is about as rare as other special gifts by which men conquer the world. In some instances, it is easier to make a thing than to sell it, and it is not often that a man who excels in the making succeeds equally well in the selling. General George P. Morris used to say: –
„I know a dozen men in New York who could make a good paper, but among them all I do not know one who could sell it.”
The late Governor Morgan of New York had this talent in a singular degree even as a boy. His uncle sent him to New York, to buy, among other things, two or three hundred bushels of corn. He bought two cargoes, and sold them to advantage in Hartford on his way from the stage office to his uncle’s store, and he kept on doing similar things all his life. He knew by a sort of intuition when it was safe to buy twenty thousand bags of coffee, or all the coffee there was for sale in New York, and he was very rarely mistaken; he had a genius for buying and selling.
I have seen car-boys and news-boys who had this gift. There are boys who will go through a train and hardly ever fail to sell a book or two. They improve every chance. If there is a passenger who wants a book, or can be made to think he wants one, the boy will find him out.
Now James Lackington was a boy of that kind. In the preface to the Memoirs which he wrote of his career he described himself as a person „who, a few years since, began business with five pounds, and now sells one hundred thousand volumes annually.” But in fact he did not begin business with five pounds, but with nothing at all.
He was the son of a drunken shoemaker who lived in an English country town, and he had no schooling except a few weeks at a dame’s school, at twopence a week. He had scarcely learned his letters at that school when his mother was obliged to take him away to help her in tending his little brothers and sisters. He spent most of his childhood in doing that, and, as he remarks, „in running about the streets getting into mischief.” When he was ten years old he felt the stirring of an inborn genius for successful traffic.
He noticed, and no doubt with the hungry eyes of a growing boy, an old pie-man, who sold his pies about the streets in a careless, inefficient way, and the thought occurred to him that, if he had pies to sell, he could sell more of them than the ancient pie-man. He went to a baker and acquainted him with his thoughts on pie-selling, and the baker soon sent him out with a tray full of pies. He showed his genius at once. The spirited way in which he cried his pies, and his activity in going about with them, made him a favorite with the pie-buyers of the town; so that the old pie-man in a few weeks lost all his business, and shut up his shop. The boy served his baker more than a year, and sold so many pies and cakes for him as to save him from impending bankruptcy. In the winter time he sold almanacs with such success that the other dealers threatened to do him bodily mischief.
But this kind of business would not do to depend on for a lifetime, and therefore he was bound apprentice to a shoemaker at the age of fourteen years, during which a desire for more knowledge arose within him. He learned to read and write, but was still so ashamed of his ignorance that he did not dare to go into a bookstore because he did not know the name of a single book to ask for. One of his friends bought for him a little volume containing a translation from the Greek philosopher Epictetus, a work full of wise maxims about life and duty. Then he bought other ancient authors, Plato, Plutarch, Epicurus, and others. He became a sort of Methodist philosopher, for he heard the Methodist preachers diligently on Sundays, and read his Greek philosophy in the evenings. He tells us that the account of Epicurus living in his garden upon a halfpenny a day, and considering a little cheese on his bread as a great treat, filled him with admiration, and he began forthwith to live on bread and tea alone, in order to get money for his books. After ending his apprenticeship and working for a short time as a journeyman, he married a buxom dairymaid, with whom he had been in love for seven years. It was a bold enterprise, for when they went to their lodgings after the wedding they searched their pockets carefully to discover the state of their finances, and found that they had one halfpenny to begin the world with. They had laid in provisions for a day or two, and they had work by which to procure more, so they began their married life by sitting down to work at shoemaking and singing together the following stanza:
„Our portion is not large indeed, But then how little do we need! For nature’s wants are few. In this the art of living lies, To want no more than may suffice, And make that little do.”
They were as happy as the day was long. Twenty times, reports this jolly shoemaker, he and his wife sang an ode by Samuel Wesley, beginning: –
„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.”
They needed their cheerful philosophy, for all they had to spend on food and drink for a week was a sum about equal to one of our dollars. Even this small revenue grew smaller, owing to the hard times, and poor James Lackington saw his young wife pining away under insufficient food and sedentary employment. His courage again saved him. After enduring extreme poverty for three years, he got together all the money he could raise, gave most of it to his wife, and set out for London, where he arrived in August, 1774, with two and sixpence in his pocket.
It was a fortunate move for our brave shoemaker. He obtained work and good wages at once, soon sent for his wife, and their united earnings more than supplied their wants. A timely legacy of ten pounds from his grandfather gave them a little furniture, and he became again a frequenter of second-hand bookstores. He could scarcely resist the temptation of a book that he wanted. One Christmas Eve he went out with money to buy their Christmas dinner, but spent the whole sum for a copy of Young’s „Night Thoughts.” His wife did not relish this style of Christmas repast.
„I think,” said he to his disappointed spouse, „that I have acted wisely; for had I bought a dinner we should have eaten it to-morrow, and the pleasure would have been soon over; but should we live fifty years longer we shall have the ‚Night Thoughts’ to feast upon.”
It was his love of books that gave him abundant Christmas dinners for the rest of his life. Having hired a little shop in which to sell the shoes made by himself and his wife, it occurred to him that he could employ the spare room in selling old books, his chief motive being to have a chance to read the books before he sold them. Beginning with a stock of half a hundred volumes, chiefly of divinity, he invested all his earnings in this new branch, and in six months he found his stock of books had increased fivefold. He abandoned his shoemaking, moved into larger premises, and was soon a thriving bookseller. He was scrupulous not to sell any book which he thought calculated to injure its readers, although about this time he found the Methodist Society somewhat too strict for him. He makes a curious remark on this subject: –
„I well remember,” he says, „that some years before, Mr. Wesley told his society at Bristol, in my hearing, that he could never keep a bookseller six months in his flock.”
His trade increased with astonishing rapidity, and the reason was that he knew how to buy and sell. He abandoned many of the old usages and traditions of the book trade. He gave no credit, which was itself a startling innovation; but his master-stroke was selling every book at the lowest price he could afford, thus giving his customers a fair portion of the benefit of his knowledge and activity. He appears to have begun the system by which books have now become a part of the furniture of every house. He bought with extraordinary boldness, spending sometimes as much as sixty thousand dollars in an afternoon’s sale.
As soon as he began to live with some liberality kind friends foretold his speedy ruin. Or, as he says: –
„When by the advice of that eminent physician, Dr. Lettsom, I purchased a horse, and saved my life by the exercise it afforded me, the old adage, ‚Set a beggar on horseback and he’ll ride to the devil,’ was deemed fully verified.”
But his one horse became two horses, and his chaise a chariot with liveried servants, in which vehicle, one summer, he made the round of the places in which he had lived as a shoemaker, called upon his old employers, and distributed liberal sums of money among his poor relations. So far from being ashamed of his business, he caused to be engraved on all his carriage doors the motto which he considered the secret of his success: –
SMALL PROFITS DO GREAT THINGS.
In his old age he rejoined his old friends the Methodists, and he declares in his last edition that, if he had never heard the Methodists preach, in all probability he should have remained through life „a poor, ragged, dirty cobbler.”