Framed sign in front of books wrapped in blue paper. The sign says, "Banned Books - Take a chance on a selection from Gentleman John's banned book collection. - Wrapped in paper to protect their identity and your reputation, the title remains a surprise until purchased. - Book wrappers offer details about the various reasons each has been publicly banned in one or multiple countries." Photo by Mary Warner at the Sea Hive, San Diego, February 23, 2024.
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Clever Marketing of Banned Books

Hubby and I had occasion to visit San Diego last week. While there, we visited a shop called the Sea Hive. It was a combination of a maker’s market and antiques store, with the floor divided up among numerous sellers.

One seller, whose area had a sign that said “Gentleman John,” was selling old books.

A corner filled with bookshelves in the Sea Hive in San Diego. The bookshelves contain old books. On top of the left bookshelf is a bird cage, lamp, bowler hat, and globe, along with a sign that says "Gentleman John" in fancy capital letters. In the foreground is a round table with books laying on it wrapped in bright blue wrapping paper. Photo by Mary Warner, February 23, 2024.
A corner filled with bookshelves in the Sea Hive in San Diego. The bookshelves contain old books. On top of the left bookshelf is a bird cage, lamp, bowler hat, and globe, along with a sign that says “Gentleman John” in fancy capital letters. In the foreground is a round table with books laying on it wrapped in bright blue wrapping paper. Photo by Mary Warner, February 23, 2024.

Laying on a round table in Gentleman John’s space were numerous books wrapped in blue wrapping paper.

By the blue books was a framed sign that explained these were books that had been banned at some point. Each book had a label that explained why it had been banned.

Framed sign in front of books wrapped in blue paper. The sign says, "Banned Books - Take a chance on a selection from Gentleman John's banned book collection. - Wrapped in paper to protect their identity and your reputation, the title remains a surprise until purchased. - Book wrappers offer details about the various reasons each has been publicly banned in one or multiple countries." Photo by Mary Warner at the Sea Hive, San Diego, February 23, 2024.
Framed sign in front of books wrapped in blue paper. The sign says, “Banned Books – Take a chance on a selection from Gentleman John’s banned book collection. – Wrapped in paper to protect their identity and your reputation, the title remains a surprise until purchased. – Book wrappers offer details about the various reasons each has been publicly banned in one or multiple countries.” Photo by Mary Warner at the Sea Hive, San Diego, February 23, 2024.

The wrapping paper meant each book would stay a surprise until after it had been purchased. Of course I was game to buy one!

I picked one based on its label and size. I wanted one small enough to fit easily in my backpack, one that wouldn’t weigh too much as I lugged it around.

Small book wrapped in blue and gold striped paper, with stripes on the diagonal. The label on the book says, "Censored widely on publication and banned in 1873 under Comstock Law until overturned. - Considered risqué in terms of its obscene language and rich sexual innuendos in the late 20th century." Photo by Mary Warner, February 25, 2024.
Small book wrapped in blue and gold striped paper, with stripes on the diagonal. The label on the book says, “Censored widely on publication and banned in 1873 under Comstock Law until overturned. – Considered risqué in terms of its obscene language and rich sexual innuendos in the late 20th century.” Photo by Mary Warner, February 25, 2024.

Before I purchased the book, I looked up Comstock Law on my phone. According to Wikipedia, Comstock laws were meant to keep obscene materials, including information on sex and contraception, from circulating by making it criminal to mail such materials through the U.S. Postal Service. They were named for an uptight dude named Anthony Comstock, who got to enforce the laws by being named a special agent of the U.S. Post Office Department. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comstock_laws

Lest you think these laws completely went by the wayside a long time ago, they have not. They have been codified in 18 U.S. Code § 1461 – Mailing obscene or crime-inciting matter.

I waited until I got home (like, ALL the way home from San Diego) to open the book. (I’m pretty sure I could have passed the marshmallow test as a kid. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_marshmallow_experiment)

Here’s what was under Gentleman John’s impeccable wrapping.

Signet Classic - Geoffrey Chaucer, "The Canterbury Tales, A Selection." The book has a black cover with a colorful medieval painting showing a variety of men around a long dining table. Photo by Mary Warner, February 25, 2024.
Signet Classic – Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Canterbury Tales, A Selection.” The book has a black cover with a colorful medieval painting showing a variety of men around a long dining table. Photo by Mary Warner, February 25, 2024.

While I had heard of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, I had never sought these tales out to read. From looking through the book and its medieval language, I would never have picked it off a shelf if I had run across it elsewhere. Because of its having been banned and the serendipity of buying it wrapped, I will give it a go, even though I’m not sure I’ll get through it. (Thank goodness there is a pronunciation guide in the book!)

This was definitely a clever marketing ploy. And Gentleman John didn’t just use wrapping paper for banned books. On the other side of the table were books wrapped in pink wrapping paper, which concealed “naughty novels.”

I resisted the temptation to buy one of these because we were heading to a nearby Barnes & Noble, where I bought John Scalzi’s “Kaiju Preservation Society.” I wanted to know what I was getting myself into. (❁´◡`❁)

Books wrapped in pink wrapping paper with red "kissing" lips pattern. Each book also has a pink lace bow and a brief label describing the contents of the book. Behind the books is a framed sign that explains these "Naughty Novels." It reads, "Naughty Novels - Need a book to keep you warm on a cold night? Have a friend who needs a little spice in their life? - Take a look through these naughty novels and find a romance that will light up your imagination." Photo by Mary Warner, February 23, 2024.
Books wrapped in pink wrapping paper with red “kissing” lips pattern. Each book also has a pink lace bow and a brief label describing the contents of the book. Behind the books is a framed sign that explains these “Naughty Novels.” It reads, “Naughty Novels – Need a book to keep you warm on a cold night? Have a friend who needs a little spice in their life? – Take a look through these naughty novels and find a romance that will light up your imagination.” Photo by Mary Warner, February 23, 2024.

2 thoughts on “Clever Marketing of Banned Books”

  1. Banned books – so on topic right now! Haha! You have given me a great idea. Maybe I won’t bother to try getting my book banned (I wasn’t really going to, but I fleetingly entertained the thought when it was suggested). I’ll just sell copies wrapped in gift paper with a sticker that says “controversial patterncutting techniques” or “the book Fast Fashion tried to ban” or something like that 🙂

  2. What a marvelous idea, Liz! I was considering the wrapped romances, too, but knew I wanted to buy a book at the Barnes & Noble because it’s located in an old movie theater. I’m a sucker for bookstores in unusual buildings. 🙂 Perhaps you could wrap your books in leftover fabric (not that you have much with zero-waste patterns!), but it would be on-brand for the contents. 🙂

Thoughtful comments welcome.