Bright Young Things: Heather O'Donnell

Our series profiling the next generation of antiquarian booksellers continues today with Heather O'Donnell, proprietor of Honey and Wax Booksellers in Brooklyn:


NP: How did you get started in rare books?


HO: Growing up, I had a strong feeling for books, and poked around secondhand shops and used book sales whenever I could. One of the books on the Honey & Wax website dates from those days: I bought it when I was fifteen. (You'll have to guess which one.) As an English major at Columbia, I held lots of bookish jobs, including a formative summer at the Strand. In grad school, I worked as a curatorial assistant at the Beinecke Library. There I had my formal introduction to rare books and manuscripts: what they are, how they trade, how to handle and describe them properly. After Yale, I taught for several years at Princeton, but found that the academy and I were drifting quietly apart. In 2004, David Bauman offered me a position with Bauman Rare Books in New York. It was a great opportunity, and I took it.

NP: When did you open Honey & Wax and what do you specialize in?

HO: I started Honey & Wax in the fall of 2011, and launched the website, the following February. The first print catalogue mails this fall. I specialize in rare and unique copies of literary classics, with occasional forays into the arts. My favorite books are association copies: books presented by one writer to another, books from the libraries of interesting readers, books with a secret past.

NP: What is the origin of the name?

HO: A few years ago, at a book fair, I was leafing through a nineteenth-century English grammar, and came across the phrase "use books as bees use flowers." I was so taken with the line and all it suggested that I wrote it down. Later, when I was thinking of starting my own company, I came back to the idea of the social life of the printed book: the way that books bring writers and readers together, of course, but also the way that a special copy can forge a bond between giver and recipient, or connect generations of readers over time. How do bees use flowers? Together, they make honey and wax.


On a more prosaic note, the apostrophe in my name screws everything up online, so O'Donnell Rare Books was out.

NP: Favorite or most interesting book that you've handled?

HO: It's hard to choose just one. Two of my favorite books, recently sold, were an 1809 anthology of dramatic verse inscribed by the Shakespearean actress Sarah Siddons, who defined many of those speeches for English audiences, and a copy of Nightwood annotated and revised after publication by Djuna Barnes. In the fall catalog, I'm particularly fond of Walker Evans's copy of The Waste Land and George Gershwin's copy of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

NP: What do you personally collect?

HO: At this point, the only rare books I own are those that have been given to me as gifts, or inscribed to me personally: I try to channel my acquisitive impulses into my customers' collections. That said, some books I'll always buy. I love quirky editions of Henry James. Last year in Prague, I picked up a Communist-era Czech translation of Washington Square full of sexy expressionistic woodcuts: so wrong, and yet irresistible. I have two shelves of paperbacks designed by Edward Gorey when he was art editor at Anchor in the 1950s, and a small collection of vintage books on charm (theory and practice).

NP: You've worked in a variety of bookish and academic professions.  What do you love about working as a rare book dealer and how does it compare to the other fields you've worked in?


HO: For me, the revelation of working in the rare book trade has been how many people, in all walks of life, at every level of collecting, are pursuing a passionate reading life. In the academy, the unspoken assumption (and sometimes, the spoken one) is that the really serious reader writes about literature for a living. The book trade has given me a much broader and truer sense of what the well-read life can be.

NP: Any other thoughts to share on the book trade and its future?


HO: This is an exciting time for the trade, because the explosion of digital text has made everyone newly aware of the unique qualities of the printed book. Some people don't miss those qualities, but others do, and seek out printed books by choice. They don't necessarily call themselves collectors, but that's what they are, and they ask more from their books than just the presence of the text. Sometimes they want a classic first printing, or a copy inscribed by the author, but they might also be drawn to a striking vintage edition, or a copy with curious early marginalia, or an innovative artist's book. The truth is, when readers buy any printed books today - new or old, commonplace or rare - they're making a choice to collect in a way that was not true even five years ago. I think there's a real opportunity for dealers to meet those new collectors where they are and show them books they haven't seen.


NP: Tell us about the production of your first catalogue and how to obtain a copy.


HO: Because Honey & Wax is devoted to the social life of the book, I wanted to feature the books in the context of a real home, not floating in space. We shot the catalogue on a sweltering August day in Brooklyn, borrowing my friends' house and much of their stuff. My one regret is that I had intended to get a Kindle or Nook into one of the shots, to show the printed book and the e-reader coexisting in peace. I'd love to do that in future Honey & Wax catalogues, so that when readers page back through them, they can date each catalogue by the comparative obsolescence of the gadgetry. Books age better.


Eventually, the catalogue will be posted on the website, and available as a PDF. Readers who prefer a hard copy can write