A resource for the obscure little world of collecting booksellers’ marks and related ephemera...
Welcome to BooksellerLabels.com. This site is a resource for collectors and those interested in booksellers’ marks and related ephemera. Bookseller labels have a long history and are richly entwined with the history of bookselling worldwide, and BooksellerLabels.com offers a glimpse of their history, books on the subject, a gallery of images, news, and links to fellow collectors.
What is a Bookseller Label?
Defining a bookseller label is a relatively easy task: it’s a small sticker placed in a new or used book to advertise the bookseller who sold it. It’s a tradition that has declined in the last few decades, but still persists due to dedicated booksellers across the globe. Once heavily used in Great Britain and Europe, now bookseller labels can be found on all continents. They are also commonly called book trade labels.
The label acts as a miniature advertisement that, in its most basic form, gives the name and city of the bookseller. More elaborate labels may include multiple store locations, other products or services they offer (stationery, blank books, binding), mottos, and, in the 21st century, web addresses. They are often attractive and curious to come across, but these little labels serve a real purpose. In my shop, when we stick labels in books we’re not only carrying on a grand bookselling tradition, we’re trying to prompt the reader into a return trip. If the book is borrowed, given away, or even ends up in a library sale, the advertising pool grows.
These labels are usually found on the lower, gutter-edge of the rear pastedown, front pastedown or front-free endpaper, though I have seen them on the upper left corner of front pastedowns (hiding under the jacket flap), title pages, copyright pages, and even the back covers of paperbacks.
The sizes of bookseller labels vary greatly, but most are small and unobtrusive with a maximum size of 20 – 30 mm in any dimension. Some are quite large, even reaching the dimensions of a business card. The Encyclopedia of Ephemera reports that bookseller labels find their roots in 18th century labels that were indistinguishable from trade cards and measured as large as 180 by 115 mm and, “unlike its unobtrusive successor, the large label often occupied a dominate position on the front or back pastedown, filling virtually the whole of the space available." 1 These large labels are now usually referred to as “stationers’ labels,” and booksellers took a hint from the more tasteful and subdued tickets of the bookbinding trade.
A selection of labels from the Netherlands, all with interesting shapes.
The shapes and designs are as diverse as the sizes: rectangles and squares, circles and ovals, triangles, octagons, scrolls, banners, and the beautiful die-cut book shapes. Open books, closed books, shelves of books, stacks of books—they are, in my opinion, one of the most stunning and fitting designs. The methods of printing, types of paper, and colors are all over the map as well.
Bookseller labels are difficult to date as they could have been placed at any time after the publication and distribution of a book. In the case of second-hand booksellers, like yours truly, the label could have been placed decades after publication. While publication dates can help to very generally narrow down the age of a new bookseller’s label, it is best to determine the date by the type of paper, printing technique and the history of the bookseller. And the history of the bookseller and the provenance of the book are where the label finds its importance. In the case of rare books, bookseller labels form an intricate web—along with bookplates, library stamps, inscriptions, auctioneer stamps, etc.—to track the ownership history of a fine book. The study of provenance allows us, as David Pearson says, “to build up wider pictures of the patterns of book ownership through the centuries, and to see how those patterns change in terms of size, composition, language, subject, or origin. These observations lead on to yield information about the history of the book trade, and about the importance of books in society." 2 When a book travels from printer to binder to bookseller to private collector or library—or any combination thereof—the booksellers’ label is an important link in that chain.
Not one, but three ink stamps in an old paperback western. Michigan, Texas and Utah. A fun way to track a book, but pretty unappealing. These stamps are booksellers' marks.
An embossed stamp, another type of booksellers' mark.
Now that I’ve given a brief description of what a bookseller label is we should discuss what a bookseller label is not, and this opens the label vs. mark debate. A bookseller label is a label that is affixed to a book. It can be self-adhesive, gummed, or attached using glue. A bookseller mark includes labels, as well as ink stamps and embossed stamps. Pretty cut and dry? Not so fast…
Are these (above) bookseller labels? No. To my mind a proper mark must include the intent to create a bookseller label, and these are nothing but price tags. But if you like it, collect it. Department store labels are another grey area. There are many labels that simply state the name of a department store (like Herpolsheimers or Macy’s), but say nothing about books or a book department. If one was removed from a book, does that count as a bookseller label. Maybe, maybe not. Go with your heart.
One thing that is definitely not a bookseller label is a bookbinders’ ticket. They generally share the same diminutive size and often the design is similar, but, as The Encyclopedia of Ephemera puts it, “the bookseller’s label differs from the binder’s ticket only in that it is an item added to a product by a retailer rather than being inserted by a craftsman as an individual ‘signature.'"3 One collector put it this way, “tickets are proof of work, that’s why binders have tickets. Bookseller labels are glorified address labels. You wouldn’t put a return address ticket on an envelope and booksellers don’t put tickets in books.”
They are definitely not the same. Well, sometimes they are…
Above are samples of labels (or tickets) of bookbinders who are also booksellers—or booksellers who are also bookbinders. What do you call these? It doesn’t matter, call them what you want. To put it simply, a bookseller affixes labels and a binder affixes tickets. Sometimes a binder has a label, and sometimes a bookseller has a ticket. Wheh!
Moving on, where do you find labels? Aside from trading with other collectors, I’ve found most of my labels in books at library sales and the discount book racks most used booksellers have on their sidewalks. Most labels have little monetary value individually, so it doesn’t pay to buy a book that is much more than a dollar or two just for the label–and if the label is in a very expensive book you shouldn’t remove it anyway. Labels are similar to bookplates, they are part of the book’s history and should only be removed when the book has little historical, monetary or association value. I’ve never met a label collector that wasn’t a book collector first, and when one of us holds a book there is a feeling—we just know that the label, like a bookplate, should remain intact.
Two vintage micro spatulas and an old, and very odd, dental tool that I use for lifting off labels.
To remove a label, I’ve found the easiest way is to cut a couple of layers of paper towel to the exact shape of the label and then add a drop or two of water. Wait 10 minutes, give or take, and then peel off the label using a fine-edged tool like a pair of stamp tongs or a bookbinder’s spatula (also called a micro spatula). I use an old, odd dental tool (see the photo). This technique works very well for most vintage labels. Newer, self-adhesive labels may require the use of adhesive removers like Goo Gone or un-du. Some labels, like modern self-adhesive foil labels, are difficult to remove and may require some experimentation. Above all, if the book is salvageable, care must be taken to leave as little evidence of your tampering as possible. In addition, ninety-nine percent of the time a binder’s ticket should never be removed by anyone but an experienced bookbinder when working on the volume.
Most of the images on this page are from the collection of Vernon Wiering.
1. Rickards, Maurice. The Encyclopedia of Ephemera: A Guide to the Fragmentary Documents of Everyday Life for the Collector, Curator, and Historian. Routledge (New York), 2000. Pg. 63.
2. Pearson, David. Provenance Research in Book History: A Handbook. Oak Knoll, with the British Library (New Castle, Delaware), 1998, 2nd ed. Pg. 2.
3. Rickards, Maurice. The Encyclopedia of Ephemera: A Guide to the Fragmentary Documents of Everyday Life for the Collector, Curator, and Historian. Routledge (New York), 2000. Pg. 62.