Honey & Wax Booksellers

Heather O’Donnell in her bookroom and office in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Heather O’Donnell in her bookroom and office in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

I always look forward to traveling to my former city of Brooklyn. Getting to visit Heather O’Donnell makes the visit a special treat. Tucked away between Whole Foods and a craft microbrewery, I found her in the office and bookroom of her business of eight years, Honey & Wax. Her space feels roomy by Brooklyn standards, with its 15-foot ceilings and uncluttered surfaces. Nevertheless, tucked into every corner you’ll find a colorful or idiosyncratic book or piece of ephemera. Each of these objects possesses either a storied history or a special significance which invites lingering and conversation.

Brigid Nelson:

I wanted to start off by asking you about a topic that’s particularly relevant to me and many other women. How have you managed to balance being a mother and a business owner?

Heather O’Donnell:

With effort. You know, I have been a single mom the whole time I’ve had my business. I have one kid and she’s pretty responsible and resourceful. Had she needed more direct attention, I probably would never have left my day job and just collected a paycheck. But because Lily was always independent, I felt like entrepreneurship was a challenge worth taking on. I’m really glad that I did.

Also, I would say a lot of lists and a lot of organization! One nice thing about owning your own business is that it makes the hours more flexible most of the time. I am able to take her to doctors' appointments, to school events, and other things that would be harder—actually—with a nine-to-five job. I can also work late at night, and certainly she’s witnessed that a lot.

At this point in my life, I can largely choose who I work with and who I deal with. I have cut out aggravation in a really transformative way. I feel very lucky to be able to do that. And I also feel very lucky—as a woman in her late 40s—to work for myself. I haven’t faced the uncertainty that many of my peers have experienced having reached a certain point in their careers, being let go, and then finding it very difficult to find another position at the same level. At least, whatever happens to me, I won’t fire myself. I trust myself to have my own back. So, it gives me a certain satisfaction that my career is in my hands. Of course, there are challenges in working for yourself. It’s a constant hustle, and that’s exhausting. Especially if it’s just you. And you know, there’s really no way that I can stop working!

Brigid:

I remember when you started Honey & Wax you were kind of considered the youngster on the block!

Heather:

At the Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair this year, I went to dinner with a group of dealers, and they were all younger than me. And that was like: “Wow, this is so exciting. Look at them. They’re all so smart and interesting.” It made me feel really happy after years of being the youngest person at the table.

Brigid:

Can you give me a brief overview of how you ended up as the owner of Honey & Wax?

Heather:

I started off as an academic, that was my first career. And in my early 30s, I left the academy for the rare book world, because I realized I did not want to be a professor. So, I took a job with Bauman Rare Books on Madison Avenue—a major American firm—with a ton of staff and very deep resources. I worked there for seven years. It was an amazing training that enabled me to go to the big auctions and the big fairs and to see lots of great private collections. I got to work in the company of people who were really experienced in what they did. It was a spectacular introduction to the trade. But after about four or five years, I did begin to feel somewhat constrained, because I was interested in a lot of books that simply didn’t fit Bauman’s mission, books that they would never handle. I really wanted to focus on the books I cared most about and be able to pursue those interests.

So, I decided to leave and deal with books that I really liked, with customers that I really liked. That was my inspiration for starting Honey & Wax.

Brigid:

What are the other important lessons you learned from your time at Bauman?

Heather:

It gave me a great introduction to the trade, which was really helpful to me when I started on my own. It would have been much harder to start without knowing anyone. Instead, I was able to start knowing a lot of senior dealers who were friendly and supportive and wanting to help in any way that they could.

I also feel really lucky that I started in a place where my mistakes were not public right away. I was corrected in-house by experienced people and my folly wasn’t publicized to the entire trade. Of course, when you’re dealing for yourself, everything you do reflects on you. So luckily, by the time I went out on my own—not that I haven’t made any mistakes—I had made my first mistakes privately and was able to avoid alienating people.

Brigid:

That makes perfect sense. Do you feel like there was anything you would have done differently when you started Honey & Wax? Were there any errors you made that first year or so?

Heather:

Definitely my business model has shifted since I started. That was a result of trial and error; of seeing what sold and what didn’t sell, where I reliably found a reception and where I didn’t, what I was interested in and what I actually turned out not to be that interested in.

But I don’t know that those are errors really, I feel like that’s just the process of finding your voice and your niche in a field. And the truth is, Honey & Wax continues to evolve and it will always have to. That’s what the book business requires at this point: a certain flexibility and curiosity about new things and the ability to tack in different directions. There are books that I handled in the early years that I certainly would not now.

Brigid:

Is that because your interests have changed?

Heather:

Things that I thought would be more saleable turned out not to be. Other things I didn’t really consider have turned out to be much more successful. Like in this case here (Heather gestures to the glass bookcase in her office), you’ll recognize those sets from early catalogs. I have a moratorium on sets at this point because no one buys them. I just can’t sell them. They’re beautiful. That George Eliot set is wonderful, so handsomely bound and illustrated, with an interesting handwritten letter from Eliot tipped into the first volume. But collected sets are out of fashion. One day they will sell, of course, but not speedily.

We’ve done a lot more recently with the history of education, particularly women’s education. That stuff flies off the shelf. So, you know, I wish I had the money that I put into the sets to put into that kind of material.

Brigid:

Can you give me some examples of the women’s education materials?

Heather:

We had this fantastic scrapbook from the 1920s chronicling a Texas flapper’s high school years. That piece gave us the graphic for this year’s Honey & Wax Book Collecting Prize and was featured in the New York Times’s New York Antiquarian Book Fair fair coverage. It sold right away. There is a lot of interest in the material culture of ordinary women’s lives, what they chose to keep and what inspired them. What made that scrapbook so great was that it had all this original artwork in it: some of it quite funny, about changing gender roles in the 1920s, like the debate over whether girls should cut their hair or keep it long, dress sporty or dress feminine. It was a really a fun thing.

Brigid:

So you purchase from other booksellers?

Heather:

I purchase from all different places. I buy at auction, I go to fairs where I buy from other dealers. People offer me books all the time. So I often buy directly from collectors, or people who have inherited books and don't know what to do with them. I go to bookshops all the time and look for unusual material. But for someone like me, who handles specialized material, dealers are a really good source. They often are the ones who have the kind of stuff that I want.

Brigid:

Is there a code of conduct for when you find something and the owner doesn't know what it’s worth?

Heather:

As a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, I follow the ABAA code of ethics. If a person from off the street brings you a book that you know to be valuable, it’s unethical to offer them 20 bucks for it and hope that they take it. I am always transparent in my offers to the public, explaining the reasoning behind each offer. Between dealers, there is an expectation that the other person will have done some due diligence, and if a bookseller has priced that book at $20 I see that as an opportunity. And obviously, you would never buy any book from anyone if you didn't think you could price it up. That’s the whole model.

In practice, I rarely buy things from dealers that are misdescribed. It’s more the case that those dealers just don’t really feel a connection to the material and haven’t described it in a way that I think would sell it to the right people. In that sense, every dealer is different because every dealer has his or her own sensibility, his or her own customers, people who respond to the kind of qualities and books that they respond to. I often buy things that are relatively cheap, uncommon, not traditional rare books. I try to bring out an aspect of those books and that makes them desirable to collectors and institutions.

Brigid:

Can you tell me the circumstances around your most exciting find?

Heather:

The most exciting finds are not necessarily the most expensive books. Earlier this year, Rebecca (Rebecca Romney of Type Punch Matrix, formerly of Honey & Wax) and I bought an eighteenth-century pamphlet out of a British dealer’s online catalog. It was a little essay about medicine in the ancient world, which we thought sounded kind of interesting. It was described as being wrapped in printer’s waste, which was a common thing in the eighteenth century. Printers would just bind a pamphlet in a temporary wrapper of whatever paper happened to be around in the shop, and then buyers would decide if they wanted to upgrade. The essay looked interesting enough, and we’re always interested in connections between the classical and the modern world. Medicine is interesting, and the author was using a lot of examples from Homer. So there was a literary component to it as well, and that seemed like a cool thing.

When it arrived, Rebecca started typing in phrases from the printer’s waste wrappers and discovered that our new pamphlet was actually bound in a fragment of one of the scarcest things ever written by Samuel Johnson, a prospectus for a medical dictionary.

Suddenly, it was a totally different thing. The selling point was not at all about the content of the pamphlet anymore. The selling point was that we had a fragment of Dr. Johnson’s prospectus for the medical dictionary. We did not have the whole thing, just a part of it. We called Harvard, who has the greatest collection of Samuel Johnson materials in the United States. They didn’t have a copy and they bought it right away. That was exciting because it was an example of how the selling point of an object completely changes: suddenly you can price it differently and you can discuss it differently. If Rebecca had not bothered to type some words into Google, we wouldn’t have known that.

I would like to think that that kind of attention to detail, just general curiosity, and openness to the object is what characterizes Honey & Wax. That we pay attention to what we’re selling and try to bring out the things about it that you might not see at first glance. But yeah, that was a really fun one. John Overholt, the curator, tweeted a picture of it with the story because they were really happy to have it.

Brigid:

Did you see the movie Can You Ever Forgive Me? What was your impression of it?

Heather:

Of course, it was fictionalized to make it a good movie, and it was a good movie. The real Lee Israel was actually a nasty piece of work and she did real damage to honest people, which was necessarily blunted in the film.

The thing that I found funniest was that the actual difficulty of her scheme, as portrayed, was to match typewriters. That part was treated incredibly cavalierly, as though you just wander into a thrift shop, pick up the first typewriter you see, and then bang, it’s exactly like Dorothy Parker’s typewriter and no one can tell the difference.

I felt like someone who was more interested in the forensics of forgery would probably have wanted to see more attention paid to how you would pull off that particular scam. But I really enjoyed the film a lot. And McCarthy is an amazing actress. She definitely captured the solitary and misanthropic quality of a number of people who work in the book trade because there truly is no other place for them to work. They cannot work anywhere else.

It was also the first time, and I think the only time, I’ve ever seen a book fair depicted on film. So that was just exciting. I was like, “Look, they are showing my people!”

Brigid:

Speaking of movies, you’re going to be in a movie! The Booksellers is coming out next month. How did that come about?

Heather:

That production team has been filming at fairs and doing interviews for the last three or four years. One of the producers is a New York bookseller, Dan Wechsler from Sanctuary Books. He put us in touch with the director early on.

They were really happy that it was picked up by the New York Film Festival; they hadn’t expected that. And it sold out immediately. I really hope it gets seen because I have such a fondness for the New York book trade. I’d like to have some documentation of this transitional moment.

Brigid:

So finally, last question. What other booksellers do you admire?

Heather:

I’ll talk about up-and-coming booksellers who I really like. Martin Hartzold has an incredible eye. Nothing he picks is boring to me, even though most of it doesn’t really align with Honey & Wax’s strengths. I will read his list anytime because it will always be full of things that I’ve never seen before, presented in a really imaginative way. I love that.

The German dealer Daniela Kromp, I think is incredible. Almost scarily so. She puts together more material of direct interest to me in a single booth than almost anyone else. She does not sell online but produces the most beautiful catalogs.

I really admire Rachel Furnari of Graph Books in Vermont. She deals in global feminist material which only occasionally overlaps with Honey & Wax, but again, just constantly has unusual books, really interestingly described.

As for my contemporaries, I always share a booth at the New York book fair with the English dealers Simon Beattie and Justin Croft. Both of them are meticulous and inspired in the way that they choose material and talk about it. I learn something every time I look at their books.

And among senior dealers: someone who I never buy from (because I can’t afford to buy from him) but whose taste and erudition I completely respect is James Jaffe. Book-for-book, he probably has the best books. He’s better at selling those books than I would be, but I really love looking at them.

Brigid:

Thank you so much for talking with me today!

Heather:

You’re so welcome!

Visit honeyandwaxbooks.com to learn more!

Light reading in the bookroom

Light reading in the bookroom

 
An example of a set of education books from Honey & Wax’s collection:  Open Highways: A Diagnostic and Developmental Reading Program (first six volumes)

An example of a set of education books from Honey & Wax’s collection: Open Highways: A Diagnostic and Developmental Reading Program (first six volumes)

 
Artwork from a 1920s Texan flapper’s high school scrapbook.

Artwork from a 1920s Texan flapper’s high school scrapbook.

 
A tweet from John Overholt  ,   Curator of the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson and Early Modern Books and Manuscripts, describing the fragment of Samuel Johnson’s prospectus for a medical dictionary discovered by Honey & Wax.

A tweet from John Overholt, Curator of the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson and Early Modern Books and Manuscripts, describing the fragment of Samuel Johnson’s prospectus for a medical dictionary discovered by Honey & Wax.

 
Brigid Nelson