When she realised that collections of rare literary works are dominated by male authors, AN Devers set about balancing the books
“They are as close to perfect objects as exist in the world,” smiles AN Devers, describing her favourite subject – books.
Five years ago, she was working as an arts journalist in New York City when occasionally buying a signed first edition by a favourite writer turned into a more serious habit. Devers started going to rare book fairs and quickly noticed a price discrepancy in modern first editions by men, and those written by women.
“I knew that the rare book world was considered old-fashioned but I hadn’t realised there were so few women book collectors or dealers compared to the number of men who sell and collect,” she says.
Not long after, Devers was struck by the idea for The Second Shelf: a rare book business focused on books by and about women. The collector trade is part of a supply chain, she explains, one that leads to readers’ bookshelves, universities, archives and libraries. Historically dominated by white, western ‘bookmen’, women – particularly women of colour – have simply been deemed less collectable.
“I put it down to the gender bias that plagues nearly all fields that women enter,” she says. “It isn’t always conscious, although often it is, but women’s contributions are typically undervalued across all areas of our life and professional experience.”
Women’s contributions are typically undervalued across all areas of our life
The only book she has given herself permission to keep “that I could – and should – sell” is a first edition of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Written under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, Devers describes the work as “tremendous and underrated”. Unusually for a female author, it is highly collectible, due to its scarcity.
Earlier this year, Devers launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. It was a means of communicating the gender imbalance issue and also a way to raise funds for her burgeoning business. She used the proceeds – 608 backers pledged £32,000 – to launch an online bookshop. And Devers now also prints a quarterly publication: a magazine and rare book catalogue hybrid. “I wanted to provide women writers and artists a space to celebrate women of the past and present – those who deserve places in the literary canon, and on our bookshelves.”
Image: Jo Emmerson