Monday, March 18, 2019

Guest Post - Booksellers' Labels, Part 1, by R B Russell

The world of collectable second-hand books is full of specialist areas of interest, but perhaps one of the most obscure and overlooked is booksellers’ labels. These are usually very small, and are stuck to the front or back fixed endpaper of a book. The earliest examples I have of these labels in my own collection date back to the 1890s, but I am certain they will have been used long before this. The most recent I have is probably from the 1970s. They can be quite fascinating for a number of reasons—most obviously, they give us a glimpse of the book trade of the past.

Every town once had its independent bookshops:

(Above, bookseller’s label in In the Key of Blue by John Addington Symons, Elkin Mathews, third edition, January 1896)

(In Known Signatures, edited by John Gawsworth, Rich & Cowan, 1932)

(In London in My Time, Thomas Burke, Rich & Cowan, 1934)

( In The Magician, by W.S. Maugham, Heinemann, 1908)

(In The Yellow Book, Volume II, July 1894)

The above label in a copy of The Yellow Book is interesting because it belies the impression that the decadent ‘yellow’ 1890s was purely a London-based phenomenon. It is true that Beardsley, Wilde, Dowson and others were living in the metropolis, scandalising the populace, but it is good to know that the aesthetes of the Isle of Wight were happily purchasing their copies of The Yellow Book from Knight’s Library, Bank Buildings.

(Knight’s Library, Bank Buildings, Ventnor, Isle of Wight)

Some of these booksellers might appear a little provincial, but the label below from the Doncaster bookshop, Taylor and Colbridge, is in a 1929 reprint of the Collected Poems of James Elroy Flecker (Martin Secker), and is a part of this book's history.

The copy was given to the young John Wall as a prize, and Wall would later write, under the pen name Sarban, a number of acclaimed novels and short stories, including The Sound of His Horn (Davies, 1952). Wall said that one of the reasons he wanted to master a difficult Oriental language was having been ‘inflamed by Flecker’s poetry’ (Mark Valentine, Time, A Falconer: a Study of Sarban, Tartarus Press, 2010, p.16). The book would have been purchased by his school from the shop which is to the right in the period photograph below:

As Mark Valentine notes in Time, A Falconer:

‘And so, at the age of twenty-three on 27th November 1933, Sarban, as he put it, ‘set out from Doncaster for Beirut’. The phrase is in one sense an encapsulation of his life’s journey, from a rather grim and mundane railway junction town to one of the most cosmopolitan and exotic cities of the East' (ibid, p.21)

That labels add history to a book's ‘provenance’ might be overstating the case, but collectors are strange creatures, and there is always the concern that, as with bookplates, some might remove booksellers’ labels to stick them in an album, thus denying them their context. There are a couple of websites online where booksellers labels are displayed, but neither say what books they were found in. Discussing the subject with a bookdealer recently he admitted that he looked out for labels from certain women booksellers because he had a customer for them. The books they came in, though, were irrelevant.

The most common labels are obviously from the better-known, long-lived bookshops, such as Heffer, which has been in business for over 140 years, opposite Trinity College, in Cambridge. Such a long history means that Heffer's labels are not rare.

(In Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan, New Adelphi Library, Martin Secker, 1926)

(Cambridge: Heffer's Bookshop is on the right)

Naturally, Oxford also has its historic bookshops, such as Blackwell:

(In Arthur Machen’s The Chronicle of Clemendy, Martin Secker, 1925)

For collectors, in theory, this label from R. Hill & Sons, whose bookshop was next to the Oxford Oratory is more difficult to find, and therefore of more value?

(In A Book of Dear Dead Women by Edna Underwood, Melrose, London, 1912)

It is gratifying to think that Underwood’s single collection of decadent short stories, with its wonderfully euphonious title, was obtained through a rather more obscure bookseller, beyond the city centre.

© R B Russell 2019

The second part will discuss some London and overseas labels.


  1. Wonderful stuff, Ray. I too love booksellers' labels, while disliking all commercial bookplates. Those designed for a particular person are the exception. Still, as you show, bookstore labels are always evocative rather than offputting. In fact, rambling on garrulously, just the other day I was thinking about whether a book label that size bearing my grand-daughter's name--Emerson Rose Dirda--would be a good idea. A tasteful type font and her pretty name--it might look lovely and I'd paste the labels into future books I'd give her. Later, I'd do the same for her younger brother and the new sibling expected in a few weeks. Such a label might look more pleasing than the unfortunate handwriting of her grandfather. But I do ramble. I look forward to part two.--md

    1. Hi Michael. If I ever create a bookplate for myself it will be similar to those labels, and tucked away at the back of my books. There must be somebody today who will print up the labels for us...

    2. This is very interesting. I'd like to then ask, along this line of thinking have either of you ever been tempted to add a bespoke bookplate into certain favourite volumes from your personal collections? To document your own custodianship. I feel conflicted with regard to older books. The argument against doing so is clear enough, but perhaps there's a benefit to the sake of a books providence, if it could be done tastefully and with discretion. What do you say?

  2. Excellent,makes me want to comb through my library in search of book labels. Looking forward to the follow up .

  3. Provenance is an interesting question when it comes to bookseller marks. In the decade I’ve been collecting I’ve come to believe that it really only matters in books with some serious age—let’s say antiquarian to be very general about it—and books that are printed in a limited manner and sold through specialist booksellers, like those who sell only art or architecture books. Even then, it is usually of interest only to special collections librarians, and not collectors. In my experience collectors would prefer their books not to be “marred” by labels or non-association bookplates. I’ve dealt with several binders and they’ve all told me that the vast majority of people who have books rebound—or repaired in such a way that endpapers have been replaced—don’t want the labels placed back in the book. That being said, when I still had my brick and mortar shop, we often placed our labels in new books and, to be a trouble maker, I still do once in a while. That said, it is usually impossible to remove a bookseller label without leaving a tell-tale spot of adhesive, staining or fading. It really doesn’t matter in most modern books, but it really is an ugly defect in anything even remotely collectible. So, unless a book is destined to be pulped for some other reason, it’s best, in my humble opinion, to leave them be and just take a photo. I’ve been lucky enough to build up some sources of previously detached or unused labels from reputable sources, so I can fill up my albums without feeling too much guilt.