A Look at The Second Shelf

I love books. I’ve always bought them, collected them, worked on them. As I get older I’ve been fortunate to gradually inhabit incrementally more spacious homes with every house move. My book collection, in following me to every address, correspondingly expanded. When we decided to move to Bath it seemed practical to rent out our house and live in an apartment. This raised the prospect of having to decant our possessions from a spacious, multi-roomed house into somewhere radically smaller. I figured I needed to immediately jettison at least a dozen boxes of books somewhere. I sounded out a local charity shop that seemed to have a better than average bookselling operation. They were initially reluctant, but when it was clear I wasn’t trying to dump a shipment of Dan Browns or TV cookery fodder they became keen. I should have known then.

Over the following months the charity sent me gift aid statements indicating that my books had raised hundreds of pounds. This nudged me to explore the charity’s website a bit more closely and found its portals to the main internet booksellers (Amazon, abebooks etc.). My old books weren’t selling in the shop for a few quid, but selling online for five to ten times that amount – their actual market value. Within a year it seemed they must have generated more than two thousand pounds. So, going into the second decade of the twenty-first century, I decided to sell my books in the modern way. I worked part-time for eighteen months for a local, digitally enterprising antiquarian bookseller and then set up my own website to sell books. Although Magalleria has intervened and I’ve had to learn a lot about the wholly dysfunctional and wonderful magazine trade, I’ve managed to retain a good grasp of the still-evolving but ever-arcane world of antique bookselling.

This preamble is to herald the second volume of Second Shelf: Rare Books and Words by Women. This is a literary magazine/rare book catalogue hybrid. My excitement on seeing this quickly flashed into the natural reflex of the collector or completist who immediately asks, ‘How can I get the first volume?’And yet Second Shelf is not exactly aimed at me, nor rather the archetypical book collector [if they exist]. It’s published by the American writer, editor and book dealer AN Devers who has managed to establish The Second Shelf bookshop in London between publishing the first two issues of the magazine. The name ‘The Second Shelf’ is taken from a New York Times article by Meg Wollitzer highlighting the literary establishment's habit of putting women’s writing on a lower rung; it is a reclamation or reevaluation project as much as a curatorial one. Devers’ aim, she states in the foreword to this issue, is to commission women writers to focus on the writers they admire and to showcase modern first edition, rare and antiquarian books with ‘rediscovered work by women with the goal of helping balance the bookshelves and redress gender inequality in the literary canon and in personal collections.’

Well, hallelujah to all that. While female novelists are prominent on any reputable contemporary earnings list, it’s an indisputable fact that rare bookselling does put work by male writers list at significantly higher prices – even overriding the rules of demand and supply. It can’t help that ‘Writing by women’ is a category unnecessarily employed in rare and antiquarian listings whereas ‘Writing by men’ is not. The trade too is characteristically male-dominated, with a fairly dense, dated-sounding terminology that veers between dispassionate and masonic. This terminology does persevere in The Second Shelf but it is often accompanied by literary observation that gives the catalogue description a perceptible lift, hinting that the book is esteemed for more than just its physical characteristics.

It’s well stitched together too. Angela Carter and Sylvia Townsend Warner, paired through their pioneering use of fairy tales and magic to subvert and challenge the patriarchal structures of the genres, are examined and meditated upon – Man Booker Prize-nominated Daisy Johnson confesses to coming late to Carter, a writer she describes as ‘the beginning for a writer like me who wants to write stories about strangeness and sex and how humans are animals underneath’. She links to Sarah Hall and her novel Mrs Fox in which the narrator’s wife turns into a fox he eventually will have release into the wild because she longer belongs in their home. ‘Is the truth that we are all unbelonging women?’ she asks.

All discussion is accompanied by images of the relevant works as catalogue items. A first edition copy of Mrs Fox is charged a reasonable £20. A first edition copy of Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (Victor Gollancz, 1977) in reasonable nick, however, is listed here at £400. That does seem pricey but I should think this is something of an upward reappraisal of the author’s worth, and I would be the first to agree that Angel Carter’s slowly disappearing canon is still outrageously affordable.

The section titled ‘Picturing Women’ looks at illustrative and design work by women. Devers rightly declares this work as ‘just as important as the work produced by their writer sisters’. She checks the groundbreaking French cartoonist Claire Bretécher and interviews the great Posy Simmonds, still not the national treasure she should be; both work in graphic novels that dare to be literary and I think are still undervalued. I hope this section will continue in future issues rather than appearing as a one-off, because there is much valuable mining to do in this area.

There’s a look at Japanese writers, interviews, fine bindings, fiction, history and poetry books as well as curiousities (‘Prized Possessions’), even a lengthy piece on book conservation, and a fair bit more.

With a blue-washed cover photograph by Hisaji Hara that references (surprisingly, given his troubled reputation today) the painter Balthus, it’s all stitched together in an impressive, quality bookish binding, it’s something I’d love to receive out of the, er, the blue. Indeed, even if I wasn’t particularly drawn to this I know I’ll be gifting copies of The Second Shelf to my literary friends – both men and women.