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To celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March and that March is Women’s History Month, we asked Heather O’Donnell and Rebecca Romney of Honey & Wax Booksellers in Brooklyn, New York, about the current role of women in antiquarian bookselling. Heather and Rebecca are experienced booksellers, who have both worked for Bauman Rare Books in the past. Heather founded Honey & Wax in 2011 and Rebecca joined the business in 2016. In 2017, they launched a book collecting contest specifically for women book collectors in the United States aged 30 or younger. Visitors to the 2018 New York Antiquarian Book Fair can meet Heather and Rebecca in person at booth E9.
AbeBooks: What are the challenges facing women wishing to get into antiquarian bookselling?
Honey & Wax: Antiquarian bookselling is a tough trade to break into, no matter who you are. Women who deal in rare books face some particular challenges: the assumption (by both men and women) that you’re a shop girl, not in charge; the continual need to prove your expertise while male colleagues are taken at face value as authorities; customers who want to flirt instead of collect. But we believe a positive cultural shift is happening within the trade today, and we are encouraged by the changes we’ve seen over the past few years.
AbeBooks: How are things changing?
Honey & Wax: The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA) has been leading on this issue. In 2016, during the presidency of Mary Gilliam, the membership approved a Code of Conduct clarifying and strengthening the organization’s policy against discrimination and harassment of all kinds. Later that year, the ABAA launched its Women’s Initiative, founded “to promote greater involvement and participation of women in the book trade.” Claudia Strauss-Schulson of Schulson Autographs is the chair of that committee, which continues its work under current ABAA president Vic Zoschak and executive director Susan Benne.
The ABAA Women’s Initiative has organized a series of networking events for women interested in the trade, drawing librarians and collectors as well as booksellers. The committee hosts the Facebook group “Women in Rare Books and Manuscripts,” which includes over 600 members; celebrates the achievements of influential women in the trade (honoring the great California bookseller Carol Sandberg last month); and will be sponsoring a panel discussion on “Collections and Women” at the 2018 New York Antiquarian Book Fair.
We’re also seeing more women holding leadership positions within the trade. More women are serving on the ABAA Board of Governors than in years past, and Australian book dealer Sally Burdon of Asia Bookroom just became president of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB). The annual Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar, which provides an intensive introduction to the trade for new booksellers, has increasingly foregrounded questions of diversity and representation, in large part because the students insist on raising them.
Perhaps the biggest change, over the past few years, has been a greater awareness from male booksellers of some of the challenges facing their female colleagues. That recognition has created allies who make a point of crediting the contributions of the women who work with them, and who speak up when they witness something obnoxious.
AbeBooks: Which female sellers from earlier generations inspired you?
Honey & Wax: There are so many! Where do we start? When do we stop? We think of the legends: Sylvia Beach, the American expatriate in Paris most famous for publishing Joyce’s Ulysses when others were too afraid to take the risk, and her partner Adrienne Monnier, one of the first women in France to own her own independent bookshop. We think of Madeleine Stern and Leona Rostenberg, “an institution in the world of antiquarian bookselling,” whose bestselling books introduced the trade to countless bibliophiles. Or Kit Currie, who quietly made herself indispensable within some of the great firms of the 20th century, like Bertram Rota and H.P. Kraus. And we think of Frances Steloff, whose Gotham Book Mart did so much for readers of literature on both sides of the Atlantic.
AbeBooks: And who inspires you today among the latest generation of sellers?
Heather O’Donnell: The London dealer Sophie Schneideman was a role model for me before I even knew her, as someone who had left one of the most venerable English firms, Maggs, to strike out successfully on her own as a specialty dealer in fine press and artists’ books. I’m continually inspired by Sophie’s business acumen, her encyclopedic knowledge of the material she sells, and the thoughtfulness she brings to every interaction with her colleagues and customers.
Rebecca Romney: Just over a week ago, one of the titans of our trade passed, Helen Younger, of Aleph-Bet Books. I’ve felt this loss keenly, even though Helen and I were only acquaintances. But it’s because I deeply admired her. The expertise she wielded in her chosen field, children’s books, brought a truly exceptional degree of breadth, depth, and taste to Aleph-Bet. Moreover, she is one of the great examples of the “work hard and don’t complain” school; she always strove to excel, despite significant health issues. When I think of my inspirations in the trade, Helen’s example pulls at me like gravity, gently but insistently.
AbeBooks: Does Honey & Wax attract female customers because it has two high profile female booksellers?
Honey & Wax: Not that we are aware. We do, anecdotally, seem to have more regular women customers than many of our colleagues in the antiquarian book trade, but that’s likely due to our focus on literature, the arts, and education: fields in which women have long played an active role, both as creators and collectors.
AbeBooks: If you could change one thing about the antiquarian bookselling business what would it be?
Honey & Wax: As we’re being interviewed for International Women’s Day, we’d like to see more men take an active interest in addressing the gender imbalance at the top of our trade, which is no one’s fault, but everyone’s responsibility. The progress women are making in the book trade is part of a larger, overdue cultural shift, and men are as fundamental to that shift as women: in some sense, even more so, because men control so many of the most powerful firms, and can do the most immediate good in terms of hiring, training, and promoting young women booksellers. The antiquarian book trade is slow to change, and in truth, we don’t expect to see gender parity in the ABAA for many years, but we’d like to live to see it.
AbeBooks: Who is a female author you believe is underrated?
Heather O’Donnell: I’ve really enjoyed discovering the German writer Irmgard Keun, who published a series of sharp, swift satires during the 1930s. In novels like The Artificial Silk Girl (1932), blacklisted for its “anti-German tendency,” and After Midnight (1937), written after Keun had fled the country, the ugliness of the Nazis is revealed in flashes and glimpses, felt by the distracted characters rather than truly understood, as it must have been experienced at the time.
I’m also a fan of Kennedy Fraser’s writing for The New Yorker in the 1970s, collected in The Fashionable Mind (1981). In essays like “Fitness,” “Recession Dressing,” and “The Executive Woman,” Fraser pays steady, respectful attention to American fashion, and it pays her (and her readers) back. I also love the Australian writer Helen Garner’s recent collection, Everywhere I Look (2016), which includes the only essay I have shared with both my mother and my daughter: “The Insults of Age.”
Rebecca Romney: After we acquired a couple books by Ann Petry, I decided to read her masterpiece The Street (1946). After having read it, I am flummoxed as to why this book isn’t commonly read in high school literature classes right along with Invisible Man and To Kill a Mockingbird. It is a powerful narrative of a well-educated, hardworking single mother’s struggle with poverty that offers both rational and emotional arguments against class and racial prejudice.
I’d also like to mention Octavia Butler, not as The Great Black Woman Science Fiction Writer (although the exploration of race and gender in her work is second to none), but as one of the greatest science fiction writers of the past 50 years, period. Yes, her star has certainly been rising steadily since her death – but I believe it has a much higher elevation yet to reach in order to reflect the true importance of her work.