Writer, editor, and rare book dealer A. N. Devers believes that rare books by women are a) undervalued b) under-promoted and c) anything but ‘niche,' a cheapened term with which they are often associated. Devers decided to publicize the issue and call the literary community to action through her new Kickstarter campaign, The Second Shelf, which asks readers, writers, and rare book collectors to donate to her new hybrid literary magazine and rare book catalogue dedicated to celebrating heretofore hidden rare books by women.
Devers spoke to SPINE about what inspired her to start The Second Shelf: “The idea for the business emerged after a new interest in rare books led me to some of my first antiquarian book fairs, about four or five years ago. I liked going to the fairs but found the majority of the books on the shelves to be by men, and the dealers and collectors were as well, although that is shifting in the last decade. I noticed a price discrepancy in the modern first editions by men and women, and it got me thinking that there was not only a need for a woman-focused rare books business, but also a need for one to make a case for books that might be overlooked or under-collected because the writer was a woman,” Devers said. “I also thought that this imbalance would be less of a problem if more women were encouraged to collect, because it would help create a market. And I started to understand that rare book dealers are a part of the supply line to archives and libraries, and these institutions are also founded on a Western literary canon that is skewed toward men. Although I didn't know it when I first thought up The Second Shelf, there are several dealers that specialise in work by women, but I might be the first in the rare book trade to point out that women shouldn't be treated as "niche" and also try to explain the inequality to a broader audience. Women don't generally collect books the same way men do and there are a lot of reasons for that, and I don't think the reasons have to do with a lack of interest -- it has to do with a lack of access, a historic lack of disposable income, and a difference in collecting habits in part because it isn't the most accessible field. I believe if women understand their lack of participation affects women writers' legacies that they will be motivated to help address the problem.”
After she realized the gender representation disparity in the rare book industry, Devers began working directly in the rare books industry: “And so, in addition to being a writer and editor, for a little over two years I have been working to learn how to be a rare book dealer, and I have been buying and selling rare books for about a year and a half. It is not an easy field, and it is not yet a lucrative one for me. But I believe in the business and the need for it, so I have started a Kickstarter to help me raise awareness, find hopeful supporters and buyers, build a mailing list, and to fund the last steps of putting a bookstore of women's work online and also publish a hybrid literary magazine and rare books catalog,” Devers told SPINE. “The catalog as I conceived it was always going to have contemporary writers contributing to it, that was a way I thought I could make it a little bit different -- but Kickstarter suggested more people would be interested if I pushed it more toward a magazine of sorts. I took their advice and am glad I did. It will mostly be a catalog of rare books, but I now have quite a few distinguished writers and journalists contributing pieces about writers who have inspired and informed them. It's all happened very quickly, I commissioned the pieces in the last six weeks, and I am trying hard to make it fresh and lively and to stand apart. Rare books catalogues can be difficult to parse if you are not already a collector or dealer, and they also suffer often from having books primarily, if not entirely, by men listed in their pages. I hope to make this accessible and informative - something that would appeal to both readers and rare book collectors, without sacrificing accuracy or detail about these books or writers.”
The SPINE community is known across the web for its dedication to the world of books, so if any of our readers would like to get involved with The Second Shelf, Devers encourages them to do so, and do so quickly, by the June 12 deadline: “Right now the way people can help The Second Shelf is to contribute to or share the Kickstarter campaign, which has an animation about inequality on our bookshelves. I'd love it if people would watch it and share it broadly, but particularly with people in their lives who are bibliophiles -- it's also great to share with libraries and organizations that might be interested in seeing more from us. They can also share it with to people who might want us to help them start their collection of work by women or be great advocates for our message.”
Learn more about The Second Shelf.
Mary Ryan Karnes is a freelance writer and a Master's candidate in fiction at the University of Southern Mississippi.