Barbara Basbanes Richter
Whether or not the name of A.N. Devers’s bookstore The Second Shelf plays on French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir’s landmark treatise on feminist philosophy The Second Sex, her endeavor certainly stems from a similar desire for equality—in this case, to balance the bookshelves for men and women writers.
An avowed bibliophile, “Second Shelf’s primary goal is to sell and find great homes for great and interesting books by and about women,” said Devers recently. “That goal stemmed from hanging out at rare book fairs, and discovering that many modern first editions by women were priced far lower than those by their male contemporaries.” For example, a first edition of de Beauvoir’s aforementioned work, in French and in very good condition, can be had for just under $150.00, while a softcover first edition first printing of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness starts at nearly six thousand dollars.
“It frustrated me,” said Devers, who would like nothing more than to see women authors collected with the same rigor and enthusiasm as men and to see the values equalize. “There are exceptions, but most women writers simply don’t command the same prices as men. I don’t think we’re anywhere near a balance,” she continued. “It’s a tilted scale.”
Which is where The Second Shelf comes in.
Founded via a robust Kickstarter campaign in 2018, The Second Shelf specializes in rare books, modern first editions, manuscripts, and rediscovered works by women. But don’t dare say she focuses on “women’s interest” titles. “I loathe the term “women’s interest” because it suggests that women are somehow a niche --and yet women writers are incredibly collectible.” Devers has noticed that librarians at institutions around the globe are recognizing that their shelves are missing many important women writers. “These librarians are looking to round out historically male-driven curation of shelves. That is a good sign,” she explains, but there’s a long way to go.
Devers is no stranger to the book world: though currently based in London, the UVA grad is an arts journalist and freelance writer by trade whose first book Train is due out from Bloomsbury in 2019. Devers's interest in rare books developed over a long time, she worked in several independent bookstores, spent a lot of time as a customer of secondhand bookshops, and learned about the rare book trade first as a writer for Fine Books magazine. But it was when she got to know her Brooklyn neighbor Heather O'Donnell, and watched her launch Honey & Wax Booksellers, and started going to fairs to see O'Donnell's selections -- that she felt like she could see herself as a book dealer. It was at one of those bookfairs she had the idea for The Second Shelf. Today, The Second Shelf exists primarily as an online endeavor, but Devers will be hanging her shingle at book fairs in 2018 and beyond. In fact, she'll be at the upcoming Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair where she will present a talk entitled, "Feminize Your Bookshelves."
Though warmly welcomed by the antiquarian bookselling community, Devers says it’s hard to convince fellow, mostly male booksellers that her focus has tremendous value. “As for stereotypes, oh, there's a lot. One of the biggest questions I get from male dealers is about what my stock will be and what will I sell? But they often will add a single female name. ‘So you'll sell women like Enid Blyton?’ I say, yes, and other women, too! I think it's a way of admitting they don't understand which women would be collectible. I thought I could help do something about it and also honor these tremendous books.”
Devers sees the current market as a study in extremes. “There are standout women writers with strong markets, but way too many women writers don't get their due or sometimes are altogether forgotten. There's not much in-between [in terms of price].”
This means that there’s plenty of room for budding collectors to put together an impressive trove, which begs the question of how to get started.
“Collect what you love,” encourages Devers. “That's every good book dealer's advice. My hope is that women will start to understand there's room for them in rare book collecting and there's an important social purpose behind their collections they choose to build. They will be building a market. Right now, a lot of women writers are very affordable, so choose what you love, and if you can't get it, buy that writer's least expensive books first and work up and toward your desired book wishes!”