Netflix Before Netflix: The Tabard Inn Library

When I set out to build a new piece of furniture I look through auction and antique websites for inspiration (especially this one). While searching for just the right bookshelf to build, I discovered a very odd piece of furniture that turned out to be the “Netflix of books,(1)” a short lived subscription business called the Tabard Inn Library dating from 1902. It was the thoughtstyling of Canadian born businessman Seymour Eaton, who launched many different publishing related schemes in his lifetime in addition to writing the hit children’s book The Roosevelt Bears.

To use the Tabard Inn Library you signed up for a lifetime membership for $3 (which would be about $100 today). This entitled you to borrow books for an additional 5¢ per book. The kiosks could be found in drug stores and other retail establishments. Eaton also had a home delivery book service called the Booklovers Library. The scheme didn’t last long but did result in the creation of a huge mailing list that Eaton attempted to use for other businesses. Does this sound familiar? My local Von’s grocery store has a DVD rental service kiosk out front that still gets use.

No, I’m not going to build a Tabard Inn Library reproduction for myself but I certainly admire this beautiful example.

If you’d like more background on the Tabard Inn Library and related businesses head over here.

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  1. A heavy piece of furniture with all its weight on one central point makes me nervous. It just seems like a malfunction waiting to happen.

  2. The Tabard Inn, Southwark was the establishment from where Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims departed. Apparently, at the time, it was far from being a high-class establishment and had a clientele composed largely of “pilgrims, drunks, travelers, criminals, and prostitutes”. Sounds much more interesting than a rotating cupboard full of books!

  3. A hundred bucks for a lifetime of books seems like a bargain. Of course, not if the company folds rather quickly. Interesting. I’ve never heard of this Little Free Library style predecessor.

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