Breaking Up the Boys Club: On Women in Rare Books
Speaking with the Dealers Pushing for a More Equitable Industry
Three years ago, Princeton received a $300 million gift—the largest donation ever collected by the institution at that time. An alumnus who had lived to be 100, William H. Scheide, had spent much of his life collecting rare books and artifacts, inspired by his father’s and his father’s father’s passion for antiquarian book collecting. His grandfather and namesake William had begun collecting at the age of 18, in 1865.
Now, the Scheide collection is the Scheide Library, housed inside the Firestone Library at Princeton, where visitors can mingle with the first six printed editions of the Bible; the original printing of the Declaration of Independence; Shakespeare’s first, second, third, and fourth folios; and autographed music sheets by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, and Wagner. Upon accepting the gift in 2015, Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber called it “one of the greatest collections of rare books and manuscripts in the world today.”
This is not so much of an exaggeration that it discounts his enthusiasm—although the statement does ring loudly with Western pride. Still, I can imagine watching the light reflect off of Mozart’s signature, or wondering whose hands cradled those first Bibles while standing inches from them. These are certainly critical artifacts. But I can’t help but get distracted by the old white mannishness of it all.
Ask a woman working in the rare books trade about an underrepresented or unappreciated woman author, and she’ll likely name too many to count. So many writers have been lost to the hetero-masculine flavor that’s been favored by dealers and collectors for decades. Those tastes have largely steered the market until now; antiquarian books and manuscripts by and about men have been valued at high prices, while women’s work remains undervalued, or unexplored.
The underrepresentation of women authors in the rare books trade is the reason rare bookseller A.N. Devers decided to launch The Second Shelf, an online store specializing in rare books by women and books related to women’s history and experiences. Its mission is to “highlight and rediscover the accomplished work of women . . . and finally balance the bookshelves.” In June, Devers completed a successful Kickstarter campaign, raising £32,002, and announced that her business will also produce a quarterly magazine, something of a mash-up between a rare book catalog—which is standard in the industry, although usually jargon-heavy—and a literary magazine, featuring original work from contemporary powerhouses like Jesmyn Ward and Lauren Groff.
The Second Shelf will open for online business in September in tandem with the magazine’s release, which will launch just in time for the publishing world’s autumn frenzy. Until then, Devers has a lot of cataloguing and preparation to do for collectors and newbies she’s hoping to bring into the fold—people, she says, “who believe women’s work is too often relegated to lower shelves and overlooked.” Also: “People who like to read in the bathtub.”
In owning a mission that in many ways subverts the way we generally think about the rare book trade—as Diane Mehta recently wrote for the Paris Review, “most people . . . imagine an old boys’ club of dealers seeking out modern first editions, mostly by men”—Devers joins a growing coterie of women in rare bookselling who appreciate the Shakespeares and Jeffersons, but understand the world’s history is big, vast, complex, and flush with prose by women, women of color, queer women, and non-binary folks: brilliant writers made invisible for too many years. They want those books on your shelves.
The same year Schneide’s treasures found a permanent home at Princeton, another scrupulous and prolific collector made a significant donation, in this case to Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Lisa Unger Baskin spent 45 years acquiring materials—books, letters, journals, and artifacts—about women’s influence in the intellectual and physical workforce, spanning from the Renaissance to the modern era. The Lisa Unger Baskin Collection is available for both admiration’s and research’s sake; its purpose is to call attention to the erasure of women’s labor. The collection boasts the most complete volume of Susan B. Anthony’s women’s rights journal The Revolution, which provided an early platform for discussing sex education, rape, domestic violence, and reproductive rights; a collection of Elizabeth Blackwell’s papers, an activist in the Anti-Slavery movement and the first woman to receive an M.D. degree from an American medical school; and Virginia Woolf’s writing desk.
Baskin is one of a number of women who have been collecting books overlooked by many of their male counterparts for years. But within the past decade or so, more women have become interested in making neglected books their business. Rebecca Romney, a bookseller partner with Heather O’Donnell at Honey & Wax in Brooklyn and the Rare Book Specialist on the History Channel’s Pawn Stars, rattles off woman after woman—and promises to send more via email—when I ask her about making the rare book trade more equitable. She adds what sounds almost like a pledge: “The first thing is to acknowledge the women that are already here and have been doing great work for a really long time.” In addition to Baskin, Romney mentions Paulette Rose, a bookseller based in New York who specializes in feminist texts and women’s literature.
When asked the same question, O’Donnell highlights women who began as booksellers at major London firms but eventually left to run their own trade. “I now see [this] is quite a common trajectory for women,” she says. “They train with these firms, but, realizing there is no path to equity or ownership, they go off on their own.”
There is a longer history of rare bookselling in England, and for that reason, a higher concentration of rare book shops. Many of the large firms driving the trade are located in London, like Maggs Bros. Ltd.; their staff page features 15 employees, 12 of whom are white men. Stateside, a comparable institution is Bauman Rare Books, a business with locations in New York, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas. Both Romney and O’Donnell cut their teeth in full-time rare bookselling working at Bauman, a generalist shop interested primarily in the Western canon. “You got your Huck Finn, you got your Ulysses, it was the same books over and over again,” says O’Donnell.
Both women stumbled into working at Bauman, which employs head hunters and targets curious, enthusiastic would-be employees with little experience in the rare book trade specifically so that they can train them into their model. Eventually, both were also able to break out and work for themselves. But those major, generalist firms still steer much of the market. As O’Donnell puts it, “The result is that these women have exquisite taste. But that means that all this buying power of big firms, and all the institutional history at those big firms, continues to be directed by men. Individual book dealers, as excellent as they are . . . [are] always going to be scrappy, smaller players in the market.”
O’Donnell had to overcome an enormous amount of imposter syndrome when she began thinking of leaving Bauman and launching Honey & Wax, which she did seven years ago, in 2011. She’d spent so much time as a bookseller that she couldn’t imagine herself in charge, which says she is common among women she’s encountered in the trade. These feelings are not only self-directed, but reinforced by the deep imbalances of the industry, particularly when it comes to senior positions.
“Everyone is very comfortable with having women behind the counter at a book fair or on the sales floor, but it would be a healthier trade if more women were in charge of the buying,” she says. “My advice to young women who are working for senior dealers, which is the traditional way to get into the field, is to learn as much as they can in that position, to make connections, to watch their bosses doing their work and learn how to do it . . . [while also] training themselves to think of themselves as actors in the trade.”
Of course, not everyone cracks into rare bookselling by working for senior dealers. Nor does everyone have the opportunity to attend one of the few seminars offered across the country meant to train young booksellers and reinvigorate those already embedded in the trade. One such seminar is the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar (CABS), often referred to as “bookseller boot camp.” Many who have attended—like Maria Lin, a bookseller at the St. Paul, Mn-based Rulon-Miller Books—rave about its benefits. In fact, Lin is wearing a heather-grey CABS t-shirt when she gives me a tour of the tens of thousands of books and manuscripts in Rulon-Miller Books’s inventory. She tells me that she attended the seminar in 2012 and liked her experience so much that she asked to sit in on specialty dealer Sally Burdon’s keynote address the next year. Lin wound up sitting next to Robert Rulon-Miller, Jr., who was looking for a bookseller with web prowess at the time. He asked Lin if she wanted a job. She said yes. He officially extended the offer later that week.
Lin’s experience is a best-case-scenario example for a CABS alum—employment. But the annual weeklong seminar caps at 50 students and costs $1,646 for tuition, room, and board. In the same way that there are barriers to choosing any kind of higher education—cost, geography, and balancing life responsibilities—CABS isn’t accessible to all. (That said, the program also offers 20 scholarships each year, supporting almost half of its participating students.)
Another way to advance within the rare books trade is to join the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA); however, to join, you must have been in business for four straight years and considered highly reputable. The application process requires sponsorship from three ABAA members, and those sponsors must be in “good standing” with the organization. This can contribute to the feeling that rare bookselling is too insular and too reliant on knowing the same, established dealers. Needless to say, not everyone who applies to the ABAA is admitted. Those who are receive networking opportunities with other rare book organizations, entry into three sponsored book fairs, and access to posting catalogues or books for sale.
While the ABAA does not currently have statistics breaking down the demographics of their membership, a quick scroll through their publicly available bookseller member list reveals more men’s than women’s names. (This observation, of course, cannot address the representation of people of color in the trade, or queer folks.) To combat this, the organization established a Women’s Initiative, a program meant to establish policies that work toward gender equity, adjust recruitment methods, and offer networking opportunities for women in the trade; O’Donnell is a member of the committee. Romney notes that these networking events are necessary, as “it’s easy for any woman, whether they’re a dealer, a collector, or a librarian, to walk into a book fair and be condescended to, or not be taken seriously, or be ignored as someone who’s not going to buy anything.” She says these efforts by the ABAA communicate, “I know you might be dealing with a couple people who are jerks, but we welcome you, we want you here.”
Devers is not yet a member of the ABAA, and she doesn’t have experience training at a major antiquarian bookstore, nor has she attended CABS (though she has attended the York Antiquarian Book Seminar, where there is now The Second Shelf Scholarship for Women.) In this way, she’s bit of a fringe player—but she sees this as to her advantage. “There’s a definite outsider-type in the rare book world, and there’s an uppercrust,” she wrote to me in an email. “There’s an underground and a mainstream.” The uppercrust, mainstream rare booksellers have been directing market values for decades, but so have likeminded buyers and collectors. This monolithic version of the trade is what we see most—if we see it at all—in pop culture or media, a stereotype from a bygone era.
One key to working towards equity in the rare books trade concerns specialized knowledge, which Romney says drives the industry. Every dealer approaches a book with their singular set of experiences—educational, cultural, social, or otherwise. What one dealer may see as worthless, another can contextualize in a way that proves its value.
Committing to this kind of contextualization in the buying and selling of books is more labor-intensive, but it’s also what will edge the trade toward multiplicity. “A lot of people think it’s [about] how important [a book] was at the time,” says Romney. “But often it’s actually more how important it is to us right now.”
“This is why things like representation of women not only in the book trade but even in what we’re taught in our education of the quote-unquote Western canon matters,” she continues. “Because if you aren’t taught about women writers besides the obvious ones, then you’re not necessarily going to see something in the wild and be able to say, ‘Oh, that’s actually a really important book.’”
I ask Romney for suggestions of imaginative and prolific but undervalued women authors, and she pulls up Honey & Wax’s current inventory. She mentions Anzia Yezierska’s 1925 novel The Bread Givers, a book she considers “one of the great American immigrant novels.” She also mentions Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, of which Honey & Wax has a first edition, in addition to a first edition of the collected works of Jane Bowles, someone who “does not get as much attention as she deserves for her literary accomplishments.”
Devers is counting on her own specialized knowledge—her expertise in literary history and her focus on rediscovering forgotten women writers—for the success of The Second Shelf. When I ask her for suggestions of underread women authors, Devers names almost a dozen, including Ann Petry, the first black women writer in America to sell a million copies of a book with 1946’s The Street; Barbara Comyns; Bette Howland; Leonora Carrington; Miriam Tlali; and Ursula Le Guin, who is widely known but “should be as culturally famous as Tolkien.”
Recently, Devers has been researching the author of two lesbian pulp novels written under a female pseudonym, Edwina Mark. The author’s name is Edwin Fadiman, Jr., and these books, she says, are an important addition to the lesbian literature canon because of their early exploration of desire, awareness and interest. They’re significant, too, because she took the time to tell their story.