Art Books In Conversation
Art Books Dispatches from the Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair
Megan N. Liberty talks with A. N. Devers, founder of The Second Shelf
The Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair
September 7-8, 2019
Devers was working at publisher A Public Space in Brooklyn and freelance writing about rare books when she visited her friend's stand at a rare book fair in NY. “There weren't that many women in the room, first of all, and the books I pulled off the shelves by women seemed to be priced less than their male contemporaries,” Devers told me on the phone. After working as a dealer for several years now, she knows that there are a number of factors that could have accounted for this discrepancy including condition of books and scarcity, but at the time, it was a shocking wake-up call. “I realized the rare book world is really important and has a part to play in the legacy of women writers.” The rare book world is the supply line to major institutions, impacting what gets on syllabi, what is taught in schools, and what is available in libraries. “If most of the dealers are male, and they are focused mostly on books by men,” Devers passionately explained to me, “and their main clients are book collectors with deep pockets who build collections that may eventually get donated to a library or other public institution or universities, and they are only seeing primarily books by men, then that is a problem.”
So she came up with what she calls “a whimsical idea” to become a rare book dealer who focused on books by women. There is a rich history of women dealing and collecting books, “but they weren't a big part of the conversation because it was dominated by 'book men.'” Devers cites her colleague Elizabeth Crawford, a rare book dealer in London who specializes in books related to women’s suffrage and history, and famous New York City dealers like Madeleine Stern and Leona Rostenberg, who both passed away in the early 2000s. “[Women rare book dealers] don't have the oral history or knowledge of each other because there are not as many. The 'book men' have so dominated the conservation.” The Second Shelf, Devers’s London bookshop, is working to change that conversation. As she said to me, “If we don't collect books by women, who is going to?”
Her store focuses on books by women, in addition to books designed by women or about women. Unlike many rare book store that can seem “rarified” in a way that makes them exclusionary, Devers specifically designed her shop to be accessible and welcoming. “I've worked really hard to design a space that feels inviting to anyone who would walk in who loves a bookshop. Part of that is having new events where we sell only new books tied to small presses or zines and new books tied to events, so someone can buy a signed first edition, which I think of as a great way to start a collection.” She also sells out of print and rare paperbacks, like the Virago green spine books or first editions of Penguin paperbacks, which are collectibles.
For the art book lovers, Devers has stocked Yayoi Kusama’s novels and memoirs—who knew she wrote these—in Japanese and a few in translation, a number of books by the modernist writer and illustrator Djuna Barnes (whose work I wrote about in this month’s reviews), and an edition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s Some Women featuring an introduction by Joan Didion. But her collection mostly focuses on recovering overlooked women’s writing. “Domestic literature often doesn’t make it into the cannon despite the fact that women's lives still to this day are far more domestic so of course they write about it because it’s their lives.” She cites again and again science fiction writer Joanna Russ’s important book, How to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983), which was formative in her development of The Second Shelf. Russ writes about all the little ways that literary criticism diminishes women’s literary talent by using qualifiers like “quiet” and “small,” which unfortunately remains typical today.
As part of this effort to change the conversation around women’s writing, Devers also publishes a magazine that is part rare book catalog part literary magazine. “I wanted to make a catalog but also to give women the space to write the piece about the writer that they might not be able to place elsewhere, because there might not be a topic or timely place for it.” Her first issue, which came out last year, includes spotlights on the work of Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde, Sylvia Plath, and Gertrude Stein, among others. It’s lushly illustrated throughout with book cover images. “The visual representation of what the person's work looked like when it came out helps give this person their history back,” Devers explains. “I let the book jackets be the artwork.” It offers all the details of a rare book catalog, with the sophisticated and elegant writing of a literary magazine, and design history to boot. “It’s educationally informative about design and period and how books were marketed.” The second issue, which is about to be released, has a focus on British writer Angela Carter.
My conversation with Devers underscored the importance of collecting as a means of rectifying history. “It seems like a nostalgic pursuit, but the more energy in the market around certain books, the more likely it gets onto syllabus and back into print.” Devers will be at the Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair with books and ephemera including some Toni Morrison novels, Sylvia Plath’s skirt, a first edition copy of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914), a first edition of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun (1959), and a rare pirated edition of Francesca Woodman’s first catalogue Some Disordered Interior Geometries (1981). If you’re looking for more art books at the fair, Devers recommends you check out Anartist Books, Bauman Rare Book, Graph Books, Honey & Wax, Marc Chabot Fine Arts, Pyewacket Books, and Left Bank Books.