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Bookshop helps to ‘find’ Lotte

13 December, 2019 — By The Xtra Diary

Lotte Eisner and, right, Kat Haylett

LOTTE Eisner was 34 years old when she was imprisoned in the Pyrenees.

The year was 1940, Europe was in the throes of war, and Eisner, an unmarried Jew, was to be only one of its nameless victims.

Only she wasn’t. A few months later she escaped. Alone and destitute, she turned to the only passion she had: film – smuggling reels of it across Europe to protect it from the Nazis. Twelve years later she published L’Écran démoniaque, one of the most influential studies of German Expressionism in film.

And then she was forgotten. Less than 40 years after her death, her work is largely unavailable in print; her reputation overshadowed by that of her mentee, Werner Herzog.

Yet Eisner’s genius, like that of so many female writers, has the hope of being rediscovered, all thanks to a tiny bookshop in the corner of Soho’s Smith’s Court.

This is The Second Shelf – a bookstore selling first editions, antiquarian books, ephemera and manuscripts. It’s a motley crew of materials with one thing in common: they are all written by women.

Opened in September 2018 by author and arts journalist Allison Devers, The Second Shelf seeks to rediscover women who have been forgotten from history.

Bookseller Kat Haylett said: “We want to rediscover women who have been erased from the canon. Allison was passionate about making sure that women were restored to the canon and treated the way they should be.

“Far too often, women are excluded from book collections and auction lists or priced significantly less than male contemporaries who were less impactful. We want to promote and highlight them.”

Allison’s inspiration for starting the project was two-fold. Years before moving to London, in a secondhand bookshop in New York, she described pulling two first editions off a shelf. One was by a well-respected living female writer and cost $25. The second was by a similarly lauded male writer and cost over $100.

That experience, Allison said, became part of a pattern – one she consolidated in an essay for Longreads written in December 2017. The essay, This is How a Woman is Erased from her Job, profiled how Brigid Hughes was omitted from The Paris Review’s history as its second editor. The piece led to two corrections in The New York Times and the reinstatement of Hughes’s name on The Paris Review’s masthead.

The Second Shelf started up “almost overnight”, according to Kat. After crowdfunding to set up an online shop, they were offered the space in the newly-renovated Smith’s Court.

In just over a year, the shop has built a dedicated following, with more than 12,000 followers on Instagram and hopes to set up an online store early next year.

Kat said: “When we set up our online shop, we can reach people who aren’t just in London. People are already emailing us and we give them recommendations and can send books out to people. But it’ll be great that people can browse our shop from anywhere. Hopefully it will inspire people to do different things in different countries.”

It is this idea of inspiration that is at the core of The Second Shelf’s ethos.

With any luck, like Eisner, women will be encouraged to write, to collect books, and to support their female contemporaries.

With any luck, unlike Eisner, they won’t be erased.

• The Second Shelf is at 14 Smith’s Court, Soho w1D 7Dw


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