by Barbara Basbanes Richter
Heather O’Donnell and Rebecca Romney of Brooklyn-based Honey & Wax feel the historically male-dominated profession of antiquarian bookselling needs to be more welcoming to women and have suggested a few ways such change could come about.
Fully 85 percent of current ABAA members are men, even with a recently launched initiative to encourage more women to become members. “That starkly unequal ratio has not improved during my years as a bookseller,” said O’Donnell, who worked in the New York gallery of Bauman Rare Books prior to launching Honey & Wax in 2011. (Romney was previously at Bauman’s Philadelphia location before joining O’Donnell in 2016.) “One major obstacle to entering the trade is undercapitalization. Without capital, it’s almost impossible to make a living at bookselling.” Still, O’Donnell traces the problem to a lack of encouragement and self-confidence. “Many capable women have an outsized mental block around the idea of entrepreneurship: they can’t quite imagine themselves securing the investment or credit necessary to grow a successful business.”
The ABAA Women’s Initiative is a step towards equal representation, whose directors are actively exploring various educational programming for members on the ins and outs of small business grants and loans.
“Senior booksellers have a role to play here as well,” explained O’Donnell, who suggested they take an active role in nurturing new sellers. “If we could develop a means of partnering on stock, financing deals, or investing in new businesses directly, we might move the needle toward gender parity.”
Historically, some women booksellers in the United States have co-owned book firms with their spouses, where one spouse is a full ABAA member. “The other [spouse] is an associate member or not a member at all. It’s easy to see why a couple would decide against paying double dues, when a single full membership confers ABAA benefits on the firm,” O’Donnell said. However, these days, additional shareholders in a firm, whether spouses or not, can receive full membership benefits and only pay one-third the cost of full ABAA membership dues.
Through their efforts, O’Donnell and Romney are inspiring the next generation of women antiquarian booksellers. A.N. Devers credits their support with her launching of The Second Shelf, for example, and many women have sought out their guidance on navigating the book trade. “Recently, at the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar, the female students included longtime shop owners, employees of established antiquarian dealers, and new booksellers launching their businesses,” O’Donnell explained. “They all face challenges, but those women are ahead of the game: savvy enough to get themselves to CABS, poised to ask questions, make connections, and find support. I worry more about the potential booksellers who don’t even know that the trade exists, or those who see no point of entry for themselves. With the successful Kickstarter launch of The Second Shelf, Devers has drawn attention to rare book collecting as a modern pursuit, and I’m excited to see more of that.”
“Rebecca and I are not carrying any mantle,” O’Donnell insisted. “We are working hard alongside women who have been working hard for much longer, like longtime American Booksellers Association of America (ABAA) members Sunday Steinkirchner of B&B Rare Books in New York and Jen Johnson of Johnson Rare Books in California. Their contributions, and the contributions of booksellers like them, inspire us to raise our game.”
Additionally, O’Donnell believes there aren’t enough women collectors in the antiquarian book world either, and to that end, she and Romney launched the Honey & Wax Book Collecting Prize last year as encouragement. Though they’re staying mum on this year’s entries (the winners will be announced early next month), they were happy to talk about last year’s winners. “We avidly follow news about our contestants!” O’Donnell said. “Last fall, runner-up Sherese Francis received a grant from the Queens Arts Fund to host a series of public events inspired by her collection of books and zines produced by writers in Southeast Queens. In December, contestant Kimberly Lew, who has collected books designed by Chip Kidd since she was a teenager, received a surprise first edition of Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle from Kidd when he heard about her project. In March, our 2017 prize winner Jessica Kahan came to the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, and met a few dealers eager to work on her collection of American romance novels between the wars. And just a few weeks ago, contestant Kate Gavino republished her application essay on vintage Penguins in the Penguin Collectors Society Journal. We’re always excited to see young collectors growing along with their collections.”
Look for O’Donnell and Romney next month at the Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair. O'Donnell will present a talk, New Directions in Book Collecting: Notes from the Honey and Wax Prize. Sunday, September 9th at 1:00pm,