The Second Shelf: Soho’s Feminist Rare-Book Store

The Second Shelf pushes back against gender bias in the rare-books trade
The Second Shelf pushes back against gender bias in the rare-books trade | © The Second Shelf
Photo of Matthew Janney
Uk Books Editor21 February 2019

Committed to promoting female writers who have fallen off the mainstream radar, The Second Shelf was launched to address historic gender bias in literature. The store’s owner, Allison Devers, hopes it will be an oasis for openness in one of London’s most literary neighbourhoods, Soho’s Smith’s Court.

“There’s a part of me that’s disappointed that I have to do this,” says Allison Devers, founder of The Second Shelf. “However, what a pleasure at the same time to find really great writers who’ve been undervalued.” In an attempt to redress the lack of female representation in the rare-book trade, Devers has launched a bookstore in Soho to champion female writers who she believes haven’t received the recognition they deserve.

A former arts journalist, Devers was inspired to create the store by her entrance into the rare-book trade. “I noticed a price discrepancy in the price of modern first editions between books by men and books by women,” she said. “Women have been treated as a niche, instead of equals, for a long time.”

The Second Shelf – taking its name from an article by author Meg Wolitzer in The New York Times – sells rare books predominantly by women, from unknown writers to literary greats. “Rare books can mean old, it can mean scarce, it can mean signed. Rare books can mean a whole lot of things,” says Devers. While Jane Austen’s best friend’s copy of Sense and Sensibility is her most expensive book, The Second Shelf also houses novelty items, such as antique writing materials, and even one of Sylvia Plath’s skirts.

The Second Shelf, Soho | © The Second Shelf

The launch of The Second Shelf in November 2018 came at the tail end of a year that saw the publishing industry begin to confront its widely accepted gender bias. In 2018, UK publisher And Other Stories committed to publishing books solely by women, while the Staunch Book Prize was launched to honor the author of a thriller whose plot avoids physical or sexual violence against women. “Right now we’re in an intense cultural moment of acknowledging this,” says Devers. “But to me I feel there’s still something waiting for the culture to do on the other side.” In launching the store, Devers hopes to help turn this cultural reckoning into tangible change.

Tucked away in Soho’s Smith’s Court, The Second Shelf is part of a suite of independent stores hoping to attract more people to the area. Devers, who has also launched a quarterly magazine of the same name, hopes to hold weekly events in the courtyard, where a panel of writers will discuss new books published by women. She hopes the space will be “an oasis for being open”, adding, “When I say women in the context of my store, I mean anyone who identifies as a woman. It’s boundaryless.”

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