The Rare Women in the Rare-Book Trade


Out of Print

From left: Belle da Costa Greene, Heather O’Donnell, and Bryn Hoffman.


In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Dalloway picks up the phone and receives a solo lunch-party invite intended for her husband, from another woman. Clarissa puts down the phone and reels over “the dwindling of life; how year by year her share was sliced; how little the margin that remained was capable any longer of stretching, of absorbing, as in the youthful years, the colours, salts, tones of existence, so that she filled the room she entered.”

Mrs. Dalloway, a book about an aging woman who is no longer valued by society, has increased in value as it has aged. The corrected 1928 typescript, with Woolf’s musings scribbled on its pages, now sells for £27,500. What is a woman worth as she ages? What is a book by a woman worth as it ages? The answers are braided into the realities of the book trade, which is still an old boys’ club. As you’d expect, the expensive books are by men: Joyce, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway. “No twentieth-century women command those prices,” said Heather O’Donnell, owner of Honey & Wax Booksellers. “Woolf tops out in the mid five figures, and Gertrude Stein and Zora Neale Hurston are relatively cheap.”

Although it’s true that old white men have always run the large, moneyed, century-old rare-book trade—buying and selling books for a living—women have made enormous inroads as private and institutional collectors. Things started shifting in the seventies. Second-wave feminism gave women a voice, and female collectors started patching the historical holes by seeing value and relevance in objects that men had ignored. When you put your gaze on a manuscript and call attention to it, you create value in the eyes of others. Curiosity creates a market. 

“It is a feminist act to preserve stuff that women have done and written,” said Elizabeth Denlinger, a curator of the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle at the New York Public Library. The only difference in men’s and women’s collecting, she underscored, is money. She speculated that “when women became curators of special collections, many began buying books by and about women.” But what Denlinger collects is not only what sells. As an employee of a major research association, Denlinger’s overriding criterion for material is its research value. “I am filling in the historical canvas with people who weren’t there before,” she said, pointing to two lesser-known women who’ve made it into booksellers’ catalogues now, partly because scandal and sex sells and partly because decades of feminism have inspired enormous changes in the subject of scholars’ research: Mary Robinson, an actress-poet who had an affair with George IV when he was still prince of Wales and whose poetry, novels, and journalism have been the subject of study in recent years; and Helen Maria Williams, a salonnière who hosted a coterie of British and American writers and politicians in Paris during the French Revolution and whose books document her experience both in Paris and as a refugee from the Terror.

The activist-collector Lisa Baskin, a star in women’s collecting, was also drawn to the field from an interest in the political, cultural, and intellectual history of women. In 1965, eager to understand the political evolution of women in liberation movements, she started collecting material that documented women’s social history. Her sixteen-thousand-piece collection, which traces women’s work from the fifteenth century through the Spanish Civil War, including the suffrage and antislavery movements, science and medicine, women’s reproductive health, art, and literature—all documenting women at work—is now housed at Duke University’s Rubenstein Library.

Like many women, Baskin was buying things that male dealers weren’t interested in, such as women printers and artists, which put her under the radar. “In the sixties, I could be a ferret and find things,” she said, citing an early-eighteenth-century book by Maria Sibylla Merian, the first person of any gender to observe and draw the metamorphoses of insects in the field. “She made some of the most beautiful books,” Baskin said. “As a child, Merian was fascinated by watching caterpillars turn into moths. She made a book about the insects of Suriname and another about the insects of Europe.” Baskin purchased a copy of Merian’s De europische Insecten (1730); copies of the book about the insects of Suriname go for hundreds of thousands of dollars now. “The issue is: Are women taken seriously as dealers and as collectors? I don’t think it’s a reflection on the works they sell or collect. I think these works were, and are, valued less,” Baskin said. She mentions J. P. Morgan’s great Morgan Library, whose collection—of books by both men and women—was largely acquired by its director and librarian Belle da Costa Greene, daughter of the first African American to graduate from Harvard College. “It was said that Greene had the brains and the wit and Morgan had the money,” Baskin said.

When most people hear the term rare books, they imagine an old boys’ club of dealers seeking out modern first editions, mostly by men. The modern first-edition market began in earnest when a 1978 court decision forced publishers to sell remaindered books at their depreciated value. As a result, publishers pulped most unsold new books and sold the rest for pennies. This made modern first editions scarce—a major factor in defining value. Prices of important books, especially by men, shot through the roof. “The eighties became the heyday of modern first-edition collecting,” O’Donnell said.

Then the Internet blew open the market. Everyone put their stock of first editions online, and the market was flooded. It became plain that first editions weren’t so rare after all, if you could buy one for fifteen dollars. “Books are not money, there is no right price for a book, and prices rise and fall all the time,” O’Donnell said. This rarefied secret society became transparent, democratized. “High spot” first editions, mostly by men or by a few female stars, such as Mary Shelley or Jane Austen, remained fixed and thriving at the top end of the market. Everyone else had to pivot.

They pivoted to everything from author archives to ephemera. This opened up new and more creative ways of collecting. Women collectors have benefitted from this eye-opening, more imaginative way of seeing what male dealers once dismissed. “There has been a turn to prizing material objects as artifacts, thanks to ordinary people putting their stuff online,” Denlinger explained. She pointed to excitement building around friendship books, a mid-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century protoscrapbook genre. Women filled books with extracts of poetry, anecdotes, quotations, hair jewelry, and other objects they liked. Each is unique (and often affordable), which makes friendship books especially appealing to younger researchers.

And female booksellers, such as O’Donnell, are doing what they can to encourage and reward young female collectors. O’Donnell’s Honey & Wax Booksellers launched an annual thousand-dollar prize for an outstanding book collection by a woman under thirty. Last year’s winner amassed hundreds of popular American romance novels from the twenties and thirties, a collection that provided insight into changing gender roles between the suffrage movement and World War II.

Women are passionate about finding, and caring for, the work of other women.This spring, the writer A. N. Devers launched a women-focused rare books business and literary quarterly, The Second Shelf. “We need more women collecting because it creates a diversity of taste. We also need more people collecting women,” Devers said. She doesn’t like the sole focus on trading books in pristine condition and thinks that some women might prefer different attributes about books. “I love a copy of a book that has a dedication, from a mom to a daughter or son or an aunt to a niece or nephew. This kind of book can look loved, but it is a beautiful kind of wear. Collectors tend to not want writing in modern first editions, but I’m incredibly moved by a wonderful inscription”

Also this spring, the bookseller Bryn Hoffman launched Pyewacket Books, a store featuring rare books related to the occult, esoterica, LGBTQIA, sex, and sex work. Women find women enthralling on their own terms, whether they are complex, ordinary, tattered, unknown, or well-known. Women seem to have a more Cubist view of what a woman is and collect accordingly. Hoffman recently acquired Wise Parenthood, by Marie Stopes. (Stopes was famous for her book Married Love, published in 1918.) “Stopes was a suffragette and pals with Margaret Sanger,” Hoffman said. “Like a lot of suffragettes, she was active in the early push for birth control—but she was a proponent of eugenics. Stopes sent a collection of love poetry to Hitler.” Hoffman stressed the need to let women’s contributions exist, whether or not they have negative attributes: “A feminist approach to bookselling is about keeping materials in context so that we don’t lose the problematic parts of history but instead learn from them.”

But here’s the rub: male dealers have most of the money, and buying power is what changes the market. “I’d like to see more women-owned rare book firms,” O’Donnell said. “The quickest way to gender parity in the trade would be for more women to wield the checkbook directly.” Change is afoot. The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA), though 85 percent male, launched an initiative in 2016 to encourage more women to become full voting members. A vote is key because as the industry organization, ABAA holds all the cards when it comes to budgets, priorities, ethics, initiatives, and discrimination. What women have always wanted, and fought for, is a way to be part of the conversation and, more so, to shape it. “I don’t believe in aging,” Virginia Woolf writes in a 1932 diary. “I believe in forever altering one’s aspect to the sun. Hence my optimism.”


Diane Mehta is a writer living in Brooklyn.