Who today would consider buying a new paperback, where the cover had been replaced by a standard blank cover with the title and author written in by hand? And what bookshop would consider asking the publisher to replace the normal cover with a blank one so that they could write on it?
Yet that seems to be exactly what happened in the 19th and early 20th century with at least two booksellers and one publisher. I’m writing again about the Tauchnitz Editions, published in continental Europe for around 100 years from 1841. They were published in Leipzig and sold through a huge number of continental bookshops. The vast majority of these of course used the standard Tauchnitz paperback wrappers. But the Nicolaische Buchhandlung , and later the Kaufhaus des Westens (KDW), both in Berlin, opted for a different arrangement. Oddly both shops still exist today, which is not true of many bookshops from over 100 years ago, so perhaps it was a commercially successful idea.
For each of them, Tauchnitz used special wrappers with the name of the shop on, but blank spaces on the front and the spine, where they could write in the series number, title and author. I’m assuming it was Tauchnitz who used the special wrappers, and not the booksellers who stripped off the normal wrapper and rebound the books themselves?
The earlier bookstore to use handwritten wrappers was the Nicolaische Buchhandlung, roughly from the 1880s to around 1910. I have two examples in my own collection, pictured here, but there are multiple examples in other collections, including around 70 of them in a state collection in Berlin itself. Both of the examples I have are missing the half-title page at the front, which is unusual for paperback copies. That makes them difficult to date accurately, but may be evidence that suggests the original wrapper was removed and replaced, rather than the books being bound in the special wrapper from the start.
The wrappers for the Kaufhaus des Westens are known in only a single copy, post World War 1, but presumably there must have been others.
The question is why would booksellers do this? To my eyes the books with their scrawly handwriting look significantly less attractive than with the normal neatly printed Tauchnitz wrappers. The writing is not always easy to read, so it wouldn’t be easy for customers to scan them and decide quickly which books they might be interested in. That would be particularly true if the books were placed on shelves with only the spine showing, which would presumably be the usual position. There’s barely room on the spine to write in the title, so the writing is inevitably cramped and often almost illegible.
The advantage is perhaps that the books can carry advertising for the bookseller. In particular the back wrapper is used for bookseller advertising rather than the usual list of other titles in the series, which is really publisher advertising, although in the bookseller’s interest as well. But was it really worth it?