Interview 6th June 2019
Allison N. Devers, Writer, arts journalist and owner of The Second Shelf
“I love them, and I love selling them to people who are just as excited by them as me – it’s really moving…”
Allison N. Devers; writer, arts journalist and owner of The Second Shelf on selling rare books by women and building a community space for all to enjoy...
We arrived at The Second Shelf on a Friday afternoon, excited to discover the pinky-red bookshop tucked away in a little courtyard not far from our office. The store is beautiful both inside and out, and the smell of books hits you as soon as you walk through the door. After being greeted by Natalie, a full-time artist, and part-time book cataloguer at The Second Shelf, and discussing some of the beautiful books around us, Allison bounds in with Pema, a modern literature expert, thrilled by their newest, first edition purchase. “She teared up” Allison explains, pointing at Pema. Allison is lovely – extremely enthusiastic, warm and knowledgeable without a hint of arrogance. We sat down for the Pass It On interview on their beautiful antique couch, huddled together in the corner of the store…
A Studio Of Our Own (ASOOO): Can you give us a bit of background as to what The Second Shelf is and why you opened the bookstore?
Allison N. Devers: The Second Shelf is a rare bookstore that sells books by and about women, containing everything from collectable paperbacks, modern first editions and books that are hundreds of years old. The idea came from the personal realisation that the rare book trade is primarily made up of male dealers and, from my visits to rare book fares, that less attention is paid to the writing and work of women. I had this idea that if I were a rare book dealer - which seemed quite whimsical - I would want to focus on the work of women writers. Then I moved to London and started learning more about rare books and I decided to try to do the business myself; I was an arts journalist so I often read and researched about literary history for my job anyway. It started as a way of making some additional income, but it was also really important to me to articulate that there is this gender disparity within the rare book trade.
ASOOO: In a shop full of rare, beautiful books – which are your favourites?
Allison: I have a few favourites – probably the most expensive book in the store is Jane Austen’s best friend’s copy of ‘Sense and Sensibility’, which is also signed by her best friend Martha Lloyd, and priced at £20,000. I have some other in-store favourites that aren’t books but are related to authors’ lives – for example Sylvia Plath’s tartan skirt, red leather wallet and monogrammed green leather picture frame. Any early edition of Sylvia Plath’s – even the literary magazines that published her poems for the first time – are really special and I sell those all the time. I love them, and I love selling them to people who are just as excited as I am – it’s really moving and exactly why I operate my shop: to give the opportunity to readers to collect something with resonance and meaning.
"I love them, and I love selling them to people who are just as excited as I am – it’s really moving and exactly why I operate my shop: to give the opportunity to readers to collect something with resonance and meaning."
ASOOO: Can you remember the first book that truly impacted your life?
Allison: I’ve always loved to read, and my first literary obsession was a series of books about horses by Marguerite O'Henry, especially the novels ‘King Of The Wind’ and ‘Misty of Chincoteague’. I read a lot of girl detective novels like the Nancy Drew Mysteries and Trixie Belden stories too. There’s also a book called ‘Roll Of Thunder, Hear My Cry’ by Mildred D. Taylor, a novel for children, about the American South and racism. It had a big impact on me. My brother is five years older than me and he always had his nose in a book, so I always wanted to do the same in order to be more like him. My mom was a teacher and emphasised reading. Books were a very big part of our upbringing.
ASOOO: We’ve seen that your first book, Train, is due to be published in 2020. Congratulations! Can you tell us a bit more about its contents and your creative writing process?
Allison: It’s part of a series called ‘The Object Lessons’ published by Bloomsbury, where authors propose a topic to write about. I proposed ‘Train’ because 15 years ago I circumnavigated America by train, getting off at 12 cities over 30 days on a very tight budget. The book is about being a solo female traveller, train culture and how we romanticise trains when they actually aren’t particularly romantic for most travellers anymore. I thought I was going on this epic journey, but it turns out that trains are actually more like travelling communal living rooms – people feel like they can ask you anything and I never really felt like I had any time to myself. It felt like people were always curious about me – I was a curiosity on the train, with my big backpack, and constantly being peppered with questions.
ASOOO: …And has your attitude towards being a writer altered since opening The Second Shelf?
Allison: No – I consider myself a writer first and foremost, and a book seller as a new additional aspect of my life. I actually get to do a lot of research as a bookdealer, as when you get a more expensive book you have to research and catalogue it, which feels almost exactly like what I do as a journalist. You dive into something, work on it and then set it free and move on. I’ll always be writing, and I still do arts journalism, interviews and book reviews.
ASOOO: Back to Sylvia Plath’s skirt – how did that come about?
Allison: I bought her skirt at an auction and it has her name taped to the inside of it, affixed to the waistband in blue lettering. I also have her wallet, a picture frame of hers and a draft of one of her poems from Ariel.
ASOOO: Since opening The Second Shelf has built a warm community of book lovers and fans. You’ve grown this through events and readings in store, and now even a magazine for those who can’t get into the shop. Can you tell us more about why you think holding events is so important for The Second Shelf community?
Allison: We’ve just started doing events – we’ve done readings and book launches so far, with plans to start a book club in the future. The Second Shelf is a tiny book shop hidden away in Soho and getting people to figure out where we are is one of our biggest challenges – but people do love finding a bookshop, especially finding a hidden one. However, being a new business, I really do need to try to actively seek out new customers. As a feminist business I also want The Second Shelf to be a place of sharing and community, and a really big part of our mission is to re-introduce women writers back into the conversation. We’re tackling that by our book launches; for example, our next reading is ‘What Not’ by Rose Macauley, a novel that was out in the 1930s. People are Rose Macauley fans, but the book hasn’t been back in print in the same form since, so tonight is a way to help with that. We also had a reading with a zine called ‘Ache’, which is a magazine about women’s illness and pain. The event was sold out in 48 hours, and it was a really moving reading – giving them that space is really important. I’ve hired as many women as possible - women photographers, women designers, women artists, women booksellers and women librarians.
There are so many women that don’t have opportunities to contribute to these fields and so it’s been really wonderful to get them involved in the process of opening and launching The Second Shelf. I found almost everyone who worked with me through word of mouth or by people reaching out. Pema actually came to work at The Second Shelf by following along with our launch! We had a very brief sit down and I liked her straight away – she’d been a book seller in Australia and had come to the UK to carry on her career, and then she found The Second Shelf.
"As a feminist business I also want The Second Shelf to be a place of sharing and community..."
ASOOO: It’s great to hear that you acknowledge that we’re in an intellectually charged era when it comes to gender and identity, and that you strive to make The Second Shelf a comfortable space for all. What tips would you give to other businesses on how to make their spaces more inclusive?
Allison: It depends on what the business is, but essentially being a welcoming and inviting space will help to make it more inclusive. I think there are some things that are old fashioned forms of being polite that actually aren’t at all – people want to prove that they’re very inviting so they’ll say things like “I have friends that are black”. It’s a bad habit where people don’t realise that they’re actually being quite prejudice by their choice of words. It can feel disingenuous, so I think it’s important to educate yourself on that – there’s some basic work to be done. It starts at the beginning. The Second Shelf is political in the sense that we’re making a statement about inequality in the patriarchy, so it’s like "how can women and women of colour and non-binary people find fairness and equality in their lives and get all the opportunities afforded to men by birth?" – that’s is part of what the store is about.
ASOOO: When we work with our clients, our three aims are to get them to communicate in a way that’s nice, brave and honest: they’re the tenets of our agency. How do you think being nice, honest and brave has helped you to get where you are today?
Allison: I try to be friendly and inviting and straight forward. I definitely think that some people find that straight forwardness to be quite an American trait, and that British reserve is something I’m not as accustomed to – so I get a pass for my cultural directness which is good because I don’t think I can change. But I’m really invested in doing something positive, especially in this time and place where things are very confusing in the world. As an author I write about things that are very interesting, at least to me, and if some other people find it interesting too then that’s great. But in the past I wasn’t sure if what I was writing about added up in terms of making a difference. Since opening The Second Shelf I’ve turned the same love of literature and thinking into something that’s making a difference by highlighting that these writers are important. To me, being a bookseller is actually becoming a political act because I’m saying that these women writers belong on the shelf. My writing sometimes had an edge of "we should do better" or it pointed things out that were unjust - but that wasn’t always the driving message. Sometimes I was just writing very pretty essays about the lives of The Brontës. I wanted to be doing more, especially when women have gender disparity across all fields of their work, and feminism is gaining a lot of powerful voices on social media. I’m very aware that there are gender politics involved in my store that are confusing, and I’m a very respectful person but there are certain things that are going on in the world that I’m very opinionated on. For example – the debate of what feminism is and who’s a woman – I don’t have a lot of room for a certain argument around who a person is and how they should present themselves. I definitely have my own beliefs and politics but mine are inviting, meaning everyone can come here – man, woman, trans, non-binary. Whatever gender you are you can come and find something for yourself, and hopefully you'll find a writer that speaks to you. We make the effort and it's worth it.
Visit The Second Shelf and say Hey! From the ASOOO team: