When she realised that collections of rare literary works are dominated by male authors, AN Devers set about redressing the balance
"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 rather 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,” she says. “Women’s contributions are typically undervalued across all areas of our life and professional experience.”
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 of Victoria Lucas, it’s a work that Devers calls “tremendous and underrated”.
Earlier this year, Devers also launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. It was a way to communicate the gender imbalance issue and also to raise funds for her burgeoning business. She used the proceeds – 608 backers pledged £32,000 – to launch an online book shop. And she now also prints a quarterly publication: a magazine and rare book catalogue hybrid for people who share her passion.
AN Devers and some of her favourite books at Second Shelf (thesecondshelf.com).
Turn to page 52 of October’s The Simple Things for more articles written by our friends at Positive News, the magazine for good journalism about good things. See the world from a different angle; positive.news/subscribe.