Wouldn’t it be great if there were a cozy little bookshop in your town that championed women writers? But because it would be a small shop, the inventory would be a curated selection of rare books, modern first editions, and rediscovered works by women writers, generally from the 20th century. And the owner would be a writer, journalist, and critic who loves women writers and their work as much as you do (maybe more). You want to go there right now, don’t you?
Well, such a bookstore does exist. It’s called The Second Shelf and it’s tucked away in a cobbled courtyard of shops in the Soho section of London. A. N. Devers, an American, moved to London from New York in 2016 and opened the store in November 2018. Devers had a successful career back in the United States. She’s written for The New Yorker, New Republic, The Paris Review, Salon, Slate, and The Washington Post, among many other publications. She’d also worked as the publicity director at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. Devers had long been passionate about women’s issues and was disturbed by the discrepancy in the treatment of women writers in publishing and bookselling.
Shortly after Devers relocated to London, she attended a rare book fair and found that works by writers as acclaimed as Joan Didion were on the lower shelves and were selling for significantly less than books by male authors. She was suitably appalled. (According to a March 2019 article about Devers and The Second Shelf in TIME Magazine, “Even among more recently published works, a 2018 study found that books by women are sold for on average 45% less than books by men.”)
Devers was also inspired. She initially envisioned an online book shop promoting works by well-known writers and rediscovered 20th century writers. Thanks to her skill in utilizing social media, a Kickstarter campaign caught fire and raised $40,000 by June 2019. Buzz continued to develop, there was a lot of media coverage, and The Second Shelf was a reality. But the online st ore idea soon evolved into a bricks-and-mortar store, thanks to a generous landlord who was willing to offer Devers a deal on rent. It’s a tiny space, but it suits the store’s purpose, at least for now, and feels like the delightfully cramped used bookstores of my college days.
Located in the back corner of Smiths Court, next to the bustling Bibi’s Kitchen, The Second Shelf is stuffed with more than 3,000 titles, from affordable Penguin paperbacks to collectible and signed editions of literary classics and modern first editions. And there are niche collections of experimental and avant-garde poetry, unpublished manuscripts, and objects relating to the lives and work of women writers. And Devers had made sure that the selections she offers cover a wide range of topics, from suffrage and feminism to history, science, and philosophy.
Devers’s shop also hosts or sponsors events like book launches (Dina Nayeri’s The Ungrateful Refugee on June 6), author appearances (Esme Weijun Wang discussed her essay collection, The Collected Schizophrenias, on June 26), and salons.
Devers also publishes a glossy quarterly of the same name that is a both a Second Shelf catalog and a literary journal dedicated to increasing the visibility of women writers, in particular writers whose works are out of print or unknown outside their home country.
The Second Shelf has a group of advisors that reads like a who’s who of female authors, including Lauren Groff, Morgan Jerkins, Laura Lippman, Elizabeth McCracken, Cheryl Strayed, and Jesmyn Ward. With this brain trust, Devers at the helm, and British critic Lucy Scholes editing the quarterly, there’s every reason to believe The Second Shelf will grow both physically and in terms of influence in the book world.
Now, if we could just get a Second Shelf franchise in your town, right?