Cart is empty
A minimalist men’s boutique, a world-class chocolatier and a luxury Japanese clothing brand fill the retail spaces in the square, as well as a bookshop.
A bookshop with a bit of a difference.
Shelves bedecked with dozens of rare books, modern first editions, manuscripts and rediscovered works by women.
I’ve been in my fair share of rare and antique bookshops, and they’re often some of the most intimidating places on a high street.
Smoky, dark and with an “old boys’ club” aesthetic that is by no means an inviting place for those for who haven’t been initiated via a cigar and a glass of scotch with a great uncle.
The Second Shelf, however, is a little different.
It has a purposefully approachable aesthetic, with a tiny faded red shopfront (bordering on an almost ironic pinky hue) and wallpaper made from vintage marbled book endpaper, discovered in a publisher’s warehouse. Vintage portraits of famous women from history hang from the walls.
The Second Shelf started as a quarterly book journal, funded by a Kickstarter campaign at the end of last year.
As a writer and rare-book dealer, founder and editor Allison Devers designed the publication to be a hybrid of literary magazine and rare-book catalogue.
Imagine a sumptuous Vogue for feminist book lovers.
The name comes from Simone de Beauvoir’s major work of feminist philosophy The Second Shelf, the book that is believed to have been responsible for the start of second-wave feminism.
Author Meg Wolitzer later coined the term in her 2012 essay, The Second Shelf, for the New York Times Book Review, which delved into the inequalities within the publishing industry.
To help boost the profile of contemporary women writers as well as those long gone, Devers has stocked her shelves with not only antiques, but also first editions of modern texts at much lower price points.
Book lovers can start their collections now with works by Olivia Laing, Meg Wolitzer and Rachel Cusk, seeing their value increase year on year. And for those whose budget may not stretch to the required £12,500 currently being asked for Sylvia Plath’s tartan plaid skirt (complete with personalised name tape), all is not lost. I left the shop only £10 poorer, with a gorgeous Gladys Peto book illustration.
A bookshop has long stood for more than just a place to buy books. The vital role of bookshops and libraries has re-entered public discourse in recent years, with the ever-present threat of closures.
The Second Shelf is more than just a bookshop; it’s also a safe space for women – both cis and trans* – to learn.
This isn’t a new concept: bookshops in the Sixties and Seventies served as an arena for women to research and discuss feminism and campaign for gender equality.
The Second Shelf plans to expand beyond its four majestically wallpapered walls. Live events with authors of upcoming novels, poetry collections and works of non-fiction are already well underway.
In the vein of practising what they preach and nurturing new talent in the world of rare books, the first Second Shelf scholarship has been awarded to Christine Jacobson, assistant curator of modern books and manuscripts at Harvard University’s Houghton Library.
After a few hairy years for independent booksellers, with the shadow of Amazon and digitised books looming large, it seems that bricks-and-mortar book businesses are on the rise again.
It was announced earlier this year that following a 20-year decline, independent bookshops were growing for a second consecutive year.
With feminism re-entering public discourse in a mainstream way in recent years, it seems like the perfect storm for women-led bookshops to thrive.
There’s clearly a market, and the Second Shelf aren’t the first to be tapping into this.
Bloomsbury-based Persephone Books – a small independent publisher and bookshop that reprints forgotten women’s writing from the 20th century – has enjoyed longstanding success since it opened 30 years ago.
There’s no denying that their sleek, grey covers and recognisable aesthetic have been made all the more recognisable thanks to the rise of the image-led “Bookstagram” community.
Before popping my head in to the Second Shelf I checked out their Twitter page. With over 15,000 followers, founder Allison Devers has nurtured a real community.
The openness with which she discusses the shop’s progress on Twitter is refreshing, and putting the pressure on her followers clearly yields results.
“We made under thirty pounds yesterday, no pressure or anything,” says a recent tweet.
She’s made it clear that economic power is where change begins, and we need to put our money where our mouths are and invest in concepts like The Second Shelf.
A plea like that is hard to ignore.
Devers has harnessed social media in a way rarely – if ever – seen in rare book trade.
She’s not been afraid to go beyond the traditional realm of a bookshop, branching into creating merch, which has already proved a triumph on social media and will continue to help spread the message: “Bookwomen” tote bags and marbled posters with “The Future of Books is Female” emblazoned across them are seen peppered across Instagram already.
Restructuring an entire industry doesn’t happen overnight, it takes time. Time that Allison Devers is willing to invest, and has created a space for us all to jump onboard with her.
So much for the decline of high-street bookshops, eh.
You May Also Like
You know how you have that one incredible friend who knows their city inside out? That’s us. We take the world’s most dynamic destinations, hand-pick the best bits and give them to you in one place. This is the kind of guide that you don’t need to run by a local – it was written by one. Eat your heart out, shop until you drop, drink like a fish, dance your socks off, sleep – then repeat.
Embrace the adventurous appetite of the next generation with an annual subscription. SUITCASE Magazine challenges travel perceptions with thought-provoking photo journals, city guides and articles by award-winning international writers.
We'll tell you where you can find the perfect boutique hotel in Paris for under £150, if you tell us about the best dive bar in your city. Deal? Share your stories and photos with #SUITCASEtravels.