When I was a youth bookshops used to stick little labels inside the back cover of the books they had in stock so you knew which shop you’d bought it at. My impression is that every shop did this, but I can’t find evidence for this, and almost all my books don’t have any such label. I did find a couple.

The Holliday Bookshop opened in 1920. They continued book-dealing till 1951, having moved in 1925 to 49th Street. University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center site The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door has a short remembrance. The book involved is a quasi-collectible edition of some Austin Dobson verses published by Kegan Paul, Trench and Trubner, and printed in in 1895 in Edinburgh at The Ballantine Press. The Story of Rosina and Other Verses has lots of nice line illustrations by Hugh Thomson, (Who also did the illustrations for my Jane Austen books.)

The second one is significant (to me anyway). It is inside the back cover of Thomas Mann’s Tristan in the Reclam paperback edition, and shows that I paid 65 Pfennig for it (0.65 deuschmarks), which was pretty cheap — probably too cheap to warrant the time spent pasting your little label in it. I bought it in March 1961, and am relieved to say I finally got around to reading it almost exactly sixty years later. The book is in amazingly good shape. Although a groundwood sheet was used it has browned very little. The perfect binding is still “perfect”. Not sure how the book would fare in English translation. It’s written in a rather Biblical idiom, old-fashioned and elaborate, and the rhythm of the German seems spot-on in the passage where the heroine, “Herr Klöterjahns Gattin” (Mr. K’s spouse/helpmeet as she is constantly referred to) orgiastically and fatally plays a piano transcription of Tristan und Isolde. It’s almost as if Wagner had been the author of the accompanying text.

I bought the book at Beier Books & Stationery in Murnau in Ober-Bayern where I spent some time (1 month?) at The Goethe Institute ostensibly improving my German, but mostly chatting in English with the other foreign students. I remember a few Egyptians, at least one Lebanese, as well as one French youth you used to stride about cussing “sonne avez biche” under his breath all the time. Not sure, but I think I may have lived above Beier’s: I remember the door up an alley off the main drag, with a view from my window of the top of the church’s onion dome spire. Murnau am Staffelsee was the center of the Blaue Reiter movement, and one could (anachronistically) imagine bumping into Wassily Kandinsky or Gabriele Münter round the next corner. Like the painters it seems that Beier’s is gone.

Reclam, a most estimable publishing house if you are a student of German, announced its Universal-Bibliothek in the 13 November 1867 issue of the Börsenblatt für den Deutschen Buchhandel. The company was founded in 1828. Apparently there were quite a few cheap-book imprints back then, but Reclam’s the one that survived. Their success depended on the early adoption of stereotyping. By 1942 the Universal Library consisted of 7,500 titles priced at “2 Silber-groschen” each. (The Silber-groschen was eventually replaced by the 10 Pfennig piece.) No. 1 and No. 2 in the series, both of which I happen to own, are, appropriately Goethe’s Faust, Parts one and two. The books weren’t all short ones either: No. 153, E. T. A. Hoffman’s Kater Murr clocks in at 520pp. The firebombing of Leipzig in 1943 and 1944 destroyed this inventory, but the grandsons of the founder reestablished the company in Stuttgart, where they are still active, claiming 3,000 backlist titles.

Here’s a third bookshop sticker, this one at the front, from Bowes & Bowes in Cambridge (now the CUP bookshop).

I still have half a dozen or so of my Reclam books, but I appear to have ditched the French equivalents, the Classiques Larousse. Why don’t Britain or America have an equivalent cheap-o series of literary classics? I think it’s economics. (I don’t count Oxford’s World Classics as really cheap.) If you devote a section of your bookshop/warehouse/publishing program to little cheap books, you’ll find it harder to pay the rent! It requires an almost evangelical cultural commitment to the belief that cheap books are good for us all to make such a series available. In the English-speaking world we seem to have tangled up value and money into one sticky mass.

No doubt the reason bookshops don’t stick labels in their books any more is that they are now quite likely to want to return the book for credit when they fail to sell it. Such a label would result in the hurting of the book.