Chloë Ashby meets the founder of Soho's new bookshop - The Second Shelf.
The Second Shelf may be small but it has a mighty ambition: to rediscover works by and about women, to generate excitement around rare books and to foster gender equality in the literary canon. “I've always been interested in unexplored histories,” says writer, editor and rare book dealer Allison Devers, who opened her bricks-and-mortar venue in November 2018. “There's a bit of a treasure-seeker in me.”
Tucked away in Smiths Court, a quiet square in London's Soho, The Second Shelf greets visitors with a smart shop front that upon the settling of the lease swiftly turned from blue to pink. Inside, antiquarian endpapers recovered from a publisher's warehouse by salvage company Retrouvius have been repurposed as marbled wallpaper and gift-wrap. The floor is lined with rosy tiles and, where there aren't bookshelves, there are portraits of anonymous women.
“I've always been a big reader,” says Devers, who, when we met on a drizzly day in February, was wearing metallic brogues studded with rhinestones and black trousers with yellow tigers at the knee. Her degree was in English literature and archaeology, and for a brief stint after graduating she worked as an archaeologist, sleeping in a tent and spending her days conducting surveys and digs. She may have ditched the roll mat but she's still preserving pieces of the past, only now the legacies of women writers and their contributions to literary history.
Devers was introduced to the rare book world through the Fine Books Magazine, a glossy quarterly to which she contributed in the US, and her friend Heather O'Donnell, who runs Honey & Wax Booksellers in Brooklyn. It was a visit to a rare book fair in New York in 2015, however, that truly inspired her to take action. She pulled from the shelf a first edition by Joan Didion: it was priced at $25. Beside it was a first edition by Cormac McCarthy, priced at $600. Both living greats, both exceptional in their own way. So why the gap? “I suddenly became aware of a huge gender imbalance in the room,” she says. “Most of these books had not only been written by men but were being bought by men. Then, for the first time, I understood that the rare book trade contributes to the canonisation of writers: it drives the market and feeds what ends up in libraries, universities and archives.”
The name The Second Shelf, a tip of the hat to Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex comes from an essay by Meg Wolitzer, published in The New York Times Sunday Book Review in 2012. While discussing the rules of literary fiction for men and women, the American author refers to that close-quartered lower shelf where books emphasising relationships and the interior lives of women are often relegated. At The Second Shelf in Soho, books by and about women take centre stage.
Some of Devers' favourites include a signed Elizabeth Bowen; some very early Muriel Spark, including her first ever published poem; and a never-published manuscript hand-calligraphied by a woman called Ida Bogue and accompanied by 45 watercolour illustrations. There's also a copy of Sense and Sensibility that belonged to Jane Austen's closest friend, Martha Lloyd, who for years lived with the author and made her ink. “For a while she was the only person who knew that Jane was writing, says Devers. “It's a story of female friendship, secrecy and intimacy that speaks to The Second Shelf.” There is one book, however, that isn't for sale: a first edition of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, published as the earliest editions were under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. “Keeping that one at home allows me to part with everything else.”
Now her venture is up and running, Devers' challenge is to keep up the momentum. “There's a lot of excitement and positivity surrounding The Second Shelf,” she says. “A number of women are working in different ways to highlight the contributions of female authors and it's an honour to be a part of that.” Lots of people have told her that her timing was right, referring to #MeToo; in fact, she set out to found the business before the movement hit. “I think The Second Shelf does resonate with people because of the times we're in but my response is, it should always be the right time to fight for these women. We need to ensure that women writers aren't treated as a fad.”
One way in which Devers plans to continue the fight is via her quarterly print journal, for which she raised funds via Kickstarter. “I wanted to create a rare book catalogue but I also wanted to commission women to write about the books and their authors.” The result is a striking publication with contributions by American novelist Lauren Groff, culture writer Lucy Scholes and author and critic Joanna Walsh. The cosy bricks-and-mortar space in Soho will also host readings and events.
At The Second Shelf, readers have the opportunity not only to find a beautiful early edition that means something to them but also to support women writers who have been cordoned off by history. “When you buy a book, you're becoming a steward for that writer,” says Devers. “You're providing space on the shelf for them, and that makes a difference.”
Visit The Second Shelf at 14 Smith's Court, London, W1D 7DW.
Words by Chloë Ashby. Photos by Sarah K Marr.