When American arts journalist Allison Devers began writing about rare-book fairs, and the dealers who bought and sold antiquarian tomes and pristine first editions, she discovered a male-dominated industry mostly interested in books written by men. “I loved the books and was captivated by the trade, but sometimes I’d read a beautiful auction catalogue and there wouldn’t be a single book by or about a woman,” she recalls. “It was a continuation of the sexism and inequality in publishing. So I had this whimsical idea that if I were a rare-book dealer, I would sell books by women.”
Devers’ whimsy became a bricks-and-mortar reality in 2018 after she moved to London and opened The Second Shelf, a tiny bookshop in a Soho courtyard. Named after an essay by Meg Wolitzer about the belittling of women’s literature, the shop sells rare and undiscovered books by female writers and artists, from big-hitters such as JK Rowling, Hilary Mantel and Toni Morrison and Jane Austen, to unknown talents who were never published or who wrote for their own pleasure. This year, during a pop-up at Hauser & Wirth, she sold her highest-ticket piece so far: the proof copy of the only book that surrealist photographer Francesca Woodman published in her lifetime, listed at £27,000.
Devers’ aim is to inspire both women and men to collect books by women. “It’s really important to balance our bookshelves,” she says. “It’s about making sure that in our homes and our offices, schools and libraries, and archives at universities, books by women are put on the shelves, considered in the space, so we are represented.”
Women have always existed in the rare-book world but, as in many fields, their history has not been recorded. Devers says that until the 1920s or ’30s, this world was made up of the libraries of great estates, collected by men to be passed on to posterity. “Women had collections too, but their libraries were dispersed,” she continues. “A college library might take a woman’s books, but she wouldn’t get a bust in the room.”
In terms of contemporary literature, the most sought-after first editions are almost entirely those by male writers, “with the exception of JK Rowling, Hilary Mantel, Agatha Christie, Patricia Highsmith and Sylvia Plath. There just aren’t that many names compared to the breadth and depth of male authors collected.” And that’s reflected in an inequality of value. Gertrude Stein is an example. “She was one of the founders of the modernist movement and yet books by James Joyce, who she encouraged, are hugely expensive – Ulysses is £80,000. None of Stein’s books reach that value,” says Devers. “Her first editions are less than £1,000. I have a first edition of Tender Buttons. It’s a beautiful, groundbreaking book of poetry and it doesn’t cost £10k. It should.”
Devers also points out that if women authors are overlooked by many book collectors, it is exponentially harder for women of colour, and she makes it a priority to have a diverse stock, including first editions by Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Cilfton, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, Mari Evans and, of course, Toni Morrison. “I sell their work almost as fast as I can acquire the books,” she says.
Condition does matter, but The Second Shelf doesn’t emphasise it as much as some. “Pristine has become too important,” says Devers. “It’s gone into this realm of wanting all the James Bonds perfect, and expensive, like they’re rare cars. I find that incredibly boring. Broadly speaking, women tend not to mind things like dedications, such as if a mother has given a book to a daughter. To me, those inscriptions speak of love.” Past highlights have included Vanessa Bell’s copy of The Voyage Out by her sister, Virginia Woolf, and Jane Austen’s best friend’s copy of Sense & Sensibility. (“Her name was Martha Lloyd and she made Austen’s ink.”)
Unlike some rarefied book stores, The Second Shelf welcomes collectors of all budgets. “I encourage collecting in lots of different ways, from first printings of Penguin paperbacks, or vintage Viragos for under £10, up to editions costing tens of thousands. The key is to invest in what you love, and that is where the value comes in.”
Starry modern first editions now up for grabs include those by Daphne du Maurier and Sylvia Plath (as well as the poet’s own tartan skirt), and a rare edition of Emily Dickinson’s first book of poetry for £13,500. Bundles of Viragos and Penguins are available for less than £25. “Maybe someone’s not going to be a big collector,” says Devers, “but even one or two first editions of favourites can make a big difference on the shelf.”
14 Smiths Court, London W1 (thesecondshelf.com;
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