Book People | September 2018 | A. N. Devers

On Her Own in the Room

When Elizabeth Crawford became a rare book dealer, setting up her first stand at a monthly fair in London in 1984, she was not the only woman in the room, but she was, she recalls, "on her own in the room" -- women booksellers were, and still are, often accompanied by their spouses or partners in bookselling. 
She took up the rare book business in part because of her interest in women writers, women's history, and in part because of the flexible schedule it provided her. She had young children at home and could still make a business out of her interest in the the lives and work of women, a subject that had been completely ignored in her studies in history and politics at Exeter University. The book trade afforded her access to her curiosity, provided her the opporutnity to research what she loved, and allowed her flexible hours she set herself, and she would take her children to book fairs when necessary.    

In her 34 years as a bookseller since Crawford published her first catalogue, which was called, "Admirable Novels By Intelligent Englishwomen," Crawford has issued a tremendous and celebration-worthy 197 catalogues devoted to what is not a niche subject but treated like one in the book trade -- the lives, work, and contributions of women.
Her rare book trade also led her to a robust career as an independent scholar, particularly of suffrage. Her latest book is Art and Suffrage: a biographical dictionary of suffrage artists. Over email she shared a brief recollection of getting started:
"My work as an independent scholar around the women's suffrage movement and women's lives in the 19th and 20th century stemmed directly from my 'trade' in second-hand books by and about women. From the outset these were the books I sold, inspired, to some degree by, for fiction, Nicola Beauman, A Very Great Profession, and, for non-fiction, Janet Horowitz Murray, Strong-minded Women: and other lost voices from 19th-century England. I had read both not long before the idea came to me of taking a stand at a Bloomsbury book fair and was enthused with the idea of finding copies of the original editions of the books these authors mentioned. Although I have a university degree in history and politics 'women', as such, were never discussed in the courses I followed back in the 1960s and 'women's studies' had barely entered the curriculum when I became a bookseller in 1984 - so I was venturing into terra incognita."

Exploring terra incognita was a smart career move for Elizabeth Crawford and her work as a bookwoman is a benefit not only to the trade, but to our history. Reflecting on her duel-armed business, she added, "There is no doubt that I have benefitted greatly from the opportunity to study so much material relating to the suffrage movement at first hand, from series of bound volumes of suffrage newspapers to suffragette cups and saucers, and that my book business has fuelled my parallel career as an historian. As one makes no money writing books, it is just as well I have my book and ephemera business in order to buy me the time to research and write. And, conversely, I hope that my reputation as an historian gives reassurance to customers buying my catalogued suffrage material."