The Private Case

The Private Case is a collection of erotic books in the British Library. For many years it was not indexed in the General Catalogue, and was only available to the most persistent researchers.

In 1991, Frontline States created its own ‘Private Case’ – a mail-order catalogue of erotic books similar to that of The Sexuality Library, a feminist collective based in San Francisco. It wasn’t easy to find sex-related books in local bookshops at that time, even if readers knew what they were looking for. Most shops spread the few titles they stocked throughout their shelves, making it very difficult to know what was available. Even when a potential customer came across what purported to be erotica, it was impossible to know whether, at first glance, the book was poorly written or just over-hyped.

‘The Private Case’ catalogue was a selection of books that had been chosen by women and couples, and were the best books on the market. All were published and available in the UK, but that didn’t prevent Customs and Excise trying to seize the same title if it had been published elsewhere and was being imported into the country!

Seven catalogues were produced, gradually extending the range and number of books listed. Stands were taken at different venues, like the first ‘Erotica’ fairs at Olympia, but the margins available to a bookseller were too tight to continue paying for expensive exhibition stands for longer than three years. Smaller and more specialist fairs were far better environments to sell books. At one ‘Erotica’, ‘The Private Case’ mounted its own exhibition of Banned Books in Britain, which included political titles as well as erotica. A website was set up to sell the catalogue online, but the main sales were through the printed copies.

As a project attempting to subvert Britain’s strange and archaic morality laws, ‘The Private Case’ was incidental, but as a bookselling experiment it was interesting – and great fun. However, it was clear that a lot more effort would have been required to turn it into a proper business and it was closed down in 2006.

‘The Private Case’ at Erotica,
Olympia, 1998