One of the best parts of my job is getting to see all the new books months before they hit stores. But the newness can be unrelenting; sometimes I’d like to focus on older books. Lately, my imagination has a place to go when I get into one of these moods: The Second Shelf, a new London shop devoted to rare books by women. (I serve on The Second Shelf’s advisory board.)
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to visit in person (yet), but I can follow along on Instagram and Twitter, watching as proprietor Allison Devers buys more books—by Virginia Woolf, Audre Lord, Muriel Spark, Ntozake Shange!—and then handsells them to eager readers. I can also thumb through the first issue of their quarterly publication, featuring essays on Mavis Gallant, Barbara Comyns, Gwendolyn Brooks, and others. Devers writes about how she started The Second Shelf when she realized that “the rare book business contributes to the legacy and canonization of writers. It is a significant part of the supply chain to libraries, universities, and archives”—and women were being neglected.
Plenty of writers fall into neglect and are then resurrected—John Williams, author of Stoner, for instance. But it just seems to happen more often to women. How many times does Barbara Pym have to be rediscovered before she stays discovered? When will popular books by women like Jacqueline Susann have the cultural credibility of popular books by men like Dashiell Hammett? The most expensive copy of The Maltese Falcon currently listed on ABE books is going for $90,000; the most expensive copy of Valley of the Dolls (signed by Susann and Patty Duke, who starred in the movie) is listed at $1,889.95. ABE currently has a feature on first editions of books published in the 1960s; there are 21 books by men and three books by women. (Just in case you wanted to know: Cover Her Face by P.D. James, Diary of a Mad Housewife by Sue Kaufman, and A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin.) Bravo to The Second Shelf for putting this issue on the table. Laurie Muchnick is the fiction editor.