It’s a month of firsts. Curious Objects is taking its first steps into year two, and this month’s episode is the first to focus on rare books dealers. Heather O’Donnell and Rebecca Romney, principals of Honey and Wax Booksellers, are a pair of irrepressible bibliophiles whose interests range from Thomas Hobbes’s timeless Leviathan to ephemera distributed by NJ Transit in the wake of 9/11. Like our host Ben Miller, they’re also what you might call “antiques evangelists,” and have dedicated themselves to making the rare books field welcoming to young women, introducing an annual collecting prize for women under thirty. Ben gets the scoop on all that and more during a discussion that centers on a very curious object: a copy of Henry Highland Garnet’s “Memorial Discourse,” the first address delivered to Congress by an African-American. This particular copy was once owned by suffragette Lottie Wilson Jackson.
Heather O’Donnell: Don’t worry about collecting things because you think you’re supposed to like them. No, collect what you respond to. The deeper you go into that and the harder you work at it the more likely it is that you will actually put something together that will have the potential to change the way people write history.
Benjamin Miller: Welcome back to Curious Objects. I’m Ben Miller, and I want to start out with a few words about why I’ve been so excited about this interview. As you know, I describe myself as an antiques evangelist. I don’t buy the doom and gloom you sometimes hear about young people’s apathy toward antiques. But the fact is, plenty of people in this weird and wacky business are pessimistic, or resigned to obscurity, or they simply don’t see how we can communicate our enthusiasm and love for these objects to new generations.
And let’s be honest—the way people collect is changing. Dealers and museums do have to rethink business as usual. Antiques enthusiasts should understand better than anyone that the world doesn’t stay the same. Some people see this process of change as a threat or an obstacle. But my guests for this episode understand it—I think, correctly—as an opportunity.
To be clear, they are not in any way pandering or dumbing down or chasing publicity. What they’re doing, at least as I see it, is doubling down on what really matters, what’s really compelling: objects that convey meaning, power, and beauty. Like the best dealers of past generations, they are connoisseurs and scholars and storytellers. But they also recognize that what matters about these objects, at the end of the day, isn’t how important someone else tells us they are. It’s how important they really are, to us. And the job of a dealer or a curator or even a collector is to uncover that importance and share it.
That’s probably more philosophical waxing than you asked for, so let me go ahead and say who I’m talking about. My guests are the dynamic duo behind Honey and Wax Booksellers, Heather O’Donnell and Rebecca Romney.
Heather O’Donnell founded the business in 2011. She had studied at Columbia and Yale, did work at Princeton, and worked for some years at the renowned firm Bauman Rare Books.
Rebecca also worked at Bauman, alongside a longstanding gig as the rare book expert for the TV show Pawn Stars. She joined Honey and Wax in 2016, and was the co-author in 2017 of Printer’s Error: Irreverent Stories from Book History.
They were both kind enough to invite me to their office in Brooklyn. It’s a bustling place, not a sound studio, and I hope you won’t begrudge some conference-room chatter in the background!
We’ll get right to it, but, first, a quick word from our sponsor:
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So, I am here with Heather O’Donnell and Rebecca Romney, who together are Honey and Wax Booksellers. We are in your offices in Brooklyn and I am very excited to talk with you two, for a number of reasons, one of which is that I have yet to have a rare book dealer on the podcast, which is a glaring omission.
Heather O’Donnell: We’re delighted to be your first ones.
Benjamin Miller: Yeah, well, I hope you represent the field properly! I want to just sort of tell our listeners a little story about how this started, because when I emailed to ask for suggestions about objects that we could talk about, Heather, you wrote back to me with a list of half a dozen different books, each of which sounded more fascinating than the last. And I just want to tell listeners to give them a sense of the kind of the range of material that you handle. One of these was a broadside about French revolutionary martyrs. One of them was a manuscript by a Victorian teenager about natural science. One of them was a collection of interviews with Walt Whitman, one of them was a memorial broadside from 1680 for the philosopher Thomas Hobbes. We haven’t even got to the thing we actually chose but just there you have three centuries represented and three different countries. What are the boundaries to what you deal? Are there boundaries?
“When I emailed to ask for suggestions about objects that we could talk about, you wrote back to me with a list of half a dozen different books, each of which sounded more fascinating than the last.”
Rebecca Romney: This is a question that we can never give a satisfactory answer to, at least in terms of other dealers. Most book dealers, they deal in photobooks, they deal in modern firsts, they have very defined categories. Whereas what we bring to it is much more, I think, our own sensibility. We will cover things from really any era and any genre as long as it speaks to us in a certain way, and that does fall into certain philosophical themes, I would say. I think we like to refer to ourselves as interdisciplinary. For example, we really like books that speak to each other and about each other. And this is one reason why we carry a lot of books, not only literature and history, but criticism, design, education, and art. These things are often piggybacking on other works of art or literature or history, but, overall, we really have a sort of know-it-when-we-see-it kind of vibe.
Heather O’Donnell: We very much like works of art or works of printing that show how classical and canonical ideas are transmitted to a mass audience. So, we love the high spots and we handle the high spots. We’ve certainly handled Leviathan, for instance, by Thomas Hobbes, but we also carry his memorial broadside, which is something that is actually much scarcer than Leviathan and in its own way tells you a lot about seventeenth-century England, and is a great way to get at Leviathan from a different angle. We’re basically all about approaching things from angles, and that’s what we’re buying at fairs as well. We often meet in an aisle to discuss something we’ve seen and that has a lot of angles—”come at it this way, come at it that way”—the more angles, the more we like it. We like to see something that illuminates lots of different kinds of materials.
Benjamin Miller: That geometric approach to collecting . . .
Heather O’Donnell: Exactly. We want something that’s really, like, prismatic . . .
Rebecca Romney: Well, also, the genre of high spots is very . . . I mean, not the genre, but the idea of high spots is very well-covered in the trade. And what we like to do is, we’ll do the high spots, we like them, we have a history of handling them, but what gets us really excited and what we are interested in handling are what are kind of “high-spot adjacent.” So, how does it illuminate a high spot in a different way? How does it change our perspective about that era or that person? So, you’re still engaging with Hobbes, you’re still engaging with Walt Whitman, with these notes, for example, or the French revolutionary broadside. It’s about the French Revolution, but it’s this odd sort of visual representation of it, right? These are things that add a little bit more color to the standard narrative and that’s really appealing to us.
“We love the high spots and we handle the high spots. . . . but what gets us really excited are what are ‘high-spot adjacent.’”
Benjamin Miller: And, Rebecca, you said a minute ago that you like books that are in conversation with one another. Does that mean that the pieces that you acquire are in some sense dependent on the pieces you already have? Do you seek out things that have a bearing on what’s already in your collection?
Rebecca Romney: Well, the good example is that revolutionary broadside. Not only did it have the martyrs of the French Revolution of the time like Marat, but it also had a few founders of liberty that were essentially people who were examples. And it showed, you know, pictures of Demosthenes, the great orator. And it had George Washington and Ben Franklin, right? And so that type of conversation—what the French Revolution was saying about George Washington—is interesting to us.
Benjamin Miller: Ok. Let’s dive into the piece that is our curious object for today, which I’m very excited to be seeing in person for the first time. So what are we looking at today?
Heather O’Donnell: We are looking at a first edition of Henry Highland Garnet’s “Memorial Discourse,” and that was the first address delivered to Congress by an African-American. Henry Highland Garnet was born a slave, escaped when he was a child, was a very active abolitionist—a colleague, and sometimes competitor, of Frederick Douglass in terms of the way they thought abolition should be achieved during the Civil War. Garnet raised three regiments, I think it was? He served as their chaplain, and in recognition of that service he was asked to address Congress on the occasion of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery. And this talk—”talk” is perhaps too colloquial—this address that he gave to the House of Representatives, on February 12, 1865, was the first time that an African-American speaker had addressed the United States Congress. And so it is a really moving document for a lot of reasons, one of them is the text that he takes as his starting point, which I will read you.
“Henry Highland Garnet’s ‘Memorial Discourse’ was the first address delivered to Congress by an African-American.”
Rebecca Romney: Yes he was an abolitionist, but also a preacher. He was the chaplain of these troops, for example, and the text, of course, is scripture. So this is a sermon essentially, that he’s delivering to Congress.
Heather O’Donnell: So Garnet takes as his text for this sermon Matthew 23:4; “For they bind heavy burdens, and grievous to be born, and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.” Which is not the most conciliatory of ways to start off talking to Congress! But I think a very excellent one, and building on that verse he delivers an argument for slavery as the original sin of the United States that is going to have to be overcome, not just through the blood of the Civil War but through enormous effort from all Americans in the decades to come.
“He delivers an argument for slavery as the original sin of the United States that is going to have to be overcome, not just through the blood of the Civil War but through enormous effort from all Americans in the decades to come.”
Benjamin Miller: And that’s an idea that obviously has more purchase today than it did at the time, although even now it’s not without controversy. But how was it received? How did Congress respond to this delivery?
Rebecca Romney: Well, the fact that this book exists at all shows that it was received very well, because initially it was just an invitation to speak. There was no plan to print the sermon afterwards. However, a number of members of Congress who were in the audience liked it so much that they encouraged him, and they said, “you need to get this published, it should be out there, should be on the record, this is important,” and so that’s why this book exists.
Benjamin Miller: Was it a commercial success, where there are multiple printings, multiple editions?
Heather O’Donnell: No. Don’t get carried away. I mean, it is a sermon.
Benjamin Miller: A powerful one, though!
Heather O’Donnell: A powerful sermon. What we especially loved about this copy was who owned it.
Benjamin Miller: Well, I want to get to the provenance in a minute, because that’s another fascinating story. But, can you tell me, How rare is this? Disregarding the provenance, how rare is this?
Rebecca Romney: So what we refer to is, in commerce, it’s actually pretty scarce. You don’t see many copies. It’s pretty well-represented in institutions, which I think speaks a lot to when it was first published. You know, who’s going to be interested? Who’s the audience for this? And you can see how those copies would have ended up in institutions over the years. So it’s not unheard of, but it is certainly on the market today as something unusual to see, and something we were very happy to see, because it doesn’t really come up that often.
Benjamin Miller: And it’s even rarer of course to have one with an interesting provenance as this particular copy does. So I cut you off, Heather, but tell me who the celebrity owner of this this is.
Heather O’Donnell: Well, this copy of Garnet’s “Memorial Discourse” was owned by Lottie Wilson Jackson and she was one of the very few African-American women who were admitted to the National American Women’s Suffrage Association—you know, the primary, sort of, body of the American suffragette movement. After traveling to the 1896 NASWA convention by train, she proposed that the organization adopt language condemning separate coach laws. Those were the Jim Crow laws that required black women to ride in white men’s smoking cars, where they are inevitably exposed to abuse. And to think of her coming on the train to the suffragette conference being forced to sit apart from the White suffragettes, and exposed in that way is, you know, it’s extremely moving. She gets there, she moves that they take this up as a woman’s rights issue. And the quote from the coverage at the time says, “many Southern delegates took offense, provoking a lively discussion, that grew quite warm and interesting in the end.” That proposal was defeated and that marked a significant rift in the suffrage movement over questions of race. This was her copy. It is signed twice by her, once with her maiden name, and then once with her married name, so she kept it for her entire life. And what we especially liked about it was just this object’s sort of double status, not only the importance of what it was at the moment it came out, but the importance that it came to have to someone decades later, who was still dealing with so many of the struggles that Garnet is concerned to talk about in the sermon, and who is pioneering another idea ahead of its time.
“This copy of Garnet’s “Memorial Discourse” was owned by Lottie Wilson Jackson and she was one of the very few African-American women who were admitted to the National American Women’s Suffrage Association.”
Benjamin Miller: And pioneering another idea ahead of its time: intersectionality, the idea of common struggles between different minority groups.
Heather O’Donnell: Exactly.
Rebecca Romney: Well, this was a real moment for that. Where you have . . . People who are familiar with the history of feminist movements in the United States know that intersectionality has been a serious issue in the past, and this particular occasion was one of the earliest rifts in that. And you see someone . . . you see Lottie Jackson fighting for this right from the beginning and having that sort of setback, and you see someone like Garnet having this moment being the first African-American to speak in front of Congress. There’s a really interesting dialogue here of the fight, that it isn’t necessarily always for progress. Sometimes it’s two steps forward, one step back, or two steps forward, three steps back, you know? And that fight . . . you have to keep pushing, you have to keep trying. You can’t be complacent about it. And I love the idea that this single object captures that entire idea.
“People who are familiar with the history of feminist movements in the United States know that intersectionality has been a serious issue in the past, and in this particular instance we see one of the earliest rifts caused by it.”
Benjamin Miller: That’s a really interesting way of putting it. Do you have any idea where this has been subsequent to Jackson?
Heather O’Donnell: No, no. Unfortunately, I mean, you know, with books it’s very rare that you have a completely unbroken chain of provenance. We actually bought this book in London, right? Overseas, right. So it had somehow gotten across the pond and then we brought it back.
“We actually bought this book in London. It had somehow gotten across the pond.”
Benjamin Miller: Ok. What was it at an auction, or private, or was it . . . ?
Heather O’Donnell: It was at the London Book Fair.
Benjamin Miller: No kidding! Ok. So it’s made its way around.
Heather O’Donnell: It’s been around. And we were very happy to throw it in our carry on and take it back home. I mean, the truth is that when we bought it we knew about Garnet; we did not understand when we bought it who Lottie Wilson Jackson was.
Rebecca Romney: We were looking for Garnet’s, specifically, because it’s a great book on its own.
Benjamin Miller: So you were aware of it . . . of the existence of the book before you . . .
Heather O’Donnell: We were aware of it and we . . . you know, we thought it was something that was perhaps a bit overlooked or undervalued, that people didn’t really remember what it was, or that it will be something that would be easy to sell, in a way, because once people understand that it’s the first time an African-American spoke to Congress, that is itself a selling point so strong for most institutions. I mean we have not actually attempted to sell this book as yet because it’s going to be in our fall catalog, so you are the first one to see this book. Yeah, but we were very, very happy to have it for the short time that we do.
Benjamin Miller: And I would imagine the market for it is stronger in America than it would have been in London.
Heather O’Donnell: I think so. I think so.
Rebecca Romney: There’s a tendency I think for things like this to get overlooked if they’re outside of a clear context, and that’s what a dealer, you know, with the knowledge base, that’s what you bring. That’s kind of what you’re being paid for in a lot of ways, right?
Benjamin Miller: It’s funny, you know it’s interesting how often that happens. You know, certainly, in the silver world, one of the most important pieces of American silver that we’ve had in recent years turned up at a tiny little out-of-the-way auction in Holland. And how this eighteenth-century New York teapot ended up in Holland we have no idea, but nobody in continental Europe had any idea what it was. So it allowed us to steal it.
Heather O’Donnell: That’s the best-case scenario!
Benjamin Miller: How do you assess the value of a piece like this?
Heather O’Donnell: I mean, this is not so hard. I mean, it is a known book and there is a market history on it. We think the provenance definitely adds to its appeal. We have it priced in the catalog at $4,500?
Rebecca Romney: I think so.
Heather O’Donnell: I think so. Actually, that’s literally in the book. I’ll just take a look before I although actually. . . . And here it is: $4,500. Yes so we have it at $4,500. So, you know, it’s a rare book, but it’s not a, you know, a stratospherically expensive . . . It’s not a Leviathan, but it’s a great thing I think, and a really moving copy.
Rebecca Romney: I think we are attracted to books that almost require us to make an argument for it. We like the pitch, like saying, “this is something that you were going to overlook but you shouldn’t.”
“I think we are attracted to books that almost require us to make an argument for it. We like the pitch, like saying, ‘this is something that you were going to overlook but you shouldn’t.’”
Benjamin Miller: Right. So tell me about the research process. Obviously, it’s something that motivates both of you.
Heather O’Donnell: We both get a big kick out of it. And, in fact, that’s one of the most fun things about us, you know, not living in the same town most of the time, is getting on the phone and saying, “Guess what! Guess what! Guess what! Listen to this.” Because we’ve been digging into something that looked kind of interesting to us and we’ve discovered that it’s actually way more interesting than we thought it was when we bought it. That’s the best. I mean the research process takes place on a lot of different levels. There is a sort of ongoing research, which is just our lives, which is where we’re reading about things, or we’re learning about things, and we’re saying to each other “did you know that . . . do know what the first English-language literary periodical in Africa was? I think we should know that, and I think we should buy it and I think we should bring it to the New York [Antiquarian] Book Fair,” or something like that.
Benjamin Miller: What is it?
Heather O’Donnell: It is a fantastic . . .
Rebecca Romney: Black Orpheus.
Heather O’Donnell: . . . with these incredible screen-printed covers. It is amazing. We did in fact put together a complete set of Black Orpheus and bring it to the New York [Antiquarian] Book Fair, where it immediately sold out of our booth before the fair opened. Which is, on the one hand, great, but on the other hand, depressing, because we were really excited to have it be, you know, part of our booth. Also it took up an enormous amount of space.
Rebecca Romney: It looked so good!
Heather O’Donnell: Rebecca called and was like, “you have to bring some more books from the office, because it’s really sparse in here right now!”
Rebecca Romney: Well, literally, because it was the entire first series. And they had these amazing covers. And so it was taking up about three shelves, just like this blockbuster thing. We were so proud of it because it’s really hard to put together the run too. And so here it is, it’s our pride and joy, and then literally within hours of this fair opening it sells!
Benjamin Miller: So you were victims of your own success.
Heather O’Donnell: That’s just it. We “learned from this.”
Rebecca Romney: This is filed under “good problems.”
Benjamin Miller: So you’re just . . . what you pick up in your daily life, that’s one part of it?
Heather O’Donnell: We get curious about things, and we think, you know, “What did you know about this? We’ll keep an eye out for that. Let’s, you know, let’s start looking around.” And then of course there’s the sort of opposite thing where we come across something, an object, a book, a broadside, something in some context and we don’t really know what it is and we maybe can’t immediately figure it out on the fly, but we just have a feeling about it, and we think “There’s something here. Let’s bring it back. Let’s bring it back to Brooklyn and put this under the microscope and see what it is.” And so that’s, you know . . . to me, that’s the great privilege of being a bookseller, is that you know you can be interested in stuff and then you can learn about it and that’s actually your job, and no one can take that away from you!
“That’s the great privilege of being a bookseller: you can be interested in stuff and then you can learn about it and that’s actually your job and no one can take that away from you!”
Benjamin Miller: In a sense it’s like a meta field of dealing, right? Because the books themselves contain information. There’s information about the books but there’s also information inside them.
Heather O’Donnell: So you wind up learning all kinds of things, and sometimes even books where the contents are kind of boring are, as books, really fascinating, because it’s something that they made happen in the world, you know. So that’s also, you know . . . there’s lots of different ways to be interested, so many angles. We love that.
Benjamin Miller: Listeners will know that a previous guest of mine, the maps dealer named Kevin Brown, used a bit of language that I found very helpful, which is to talk about antiques in a “Rumsfeldian” context—the now-infamous Rumsfeld line about known knowns, and known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. And to put it in a very different context, you know, I think in any area of antique dealing you’re going to have your commodities, your Leviathans, your known knowns. People more or less agree on what they are and what their value is, how you assess the value of one versus another, based on condition, etc. Then you have your known unknowns which are sort of the things that maybe you know about, but they’re less well-known in the world, or maybe you don’t know about but there are people in the world who know about it. And so you can sort of say, “well, this is, it’s harder to say exactly what it’s worth, it’s harder to say . . .” Yeah, exactly. So this book that we’re talking about today is a known unknown. And then you have your unknown unknowns, which are the things that nobody has ever seen before. And you really have to figure out what it is going on.
Rebecca Romney: We had something like that just recently. Another thing we had found when we were in England, essentially what it was, was kind of a matching math game from the early 1800s. And, you know, it was printed, and then hand-colored and everything. And the thing is, in this era you see history games, and you see geography games, but math is very, very unusual. It’s something that both of us were like, “I’ve never seen this before,” and that sort of set something off for us. And so we looked into it, and really we could find nothing, and we hardly knew anything, we had to do sort of an approximation. We could tell, based on how it was printed, we could get it dated, and everything. But in terms of the market we could find no record of anything quite like this. And so, you know, we catalogue it, and we price it, and then when we put it into an e-list, we had how many orders for it within a few hours?
Heather O’Donnell: Five.
Rebecca Romney: I mean, we were like, “Oh, I think maybe we priced it too low.” Maybe we priced it just right, it’s always hard to tell. But yeah, that was a perfect time . . .
Benjamin Miller: . . . when you wish you were running an auction house, right?
Heather O’Donnell: Yes, yes. I mean pricing is a real, you know, it’s something that we actually have to talk about a lot, because so many of the things that we handle, aren’t, you know, sort of obvious first editions where the range is so narrow that you don’t even have to talk about it really. You know a lot of these things, it is a question of, like, “is this a ten thousand–dollar thing? Or is it maybe actually a twenty thousand–dollar thing?” And then the question becomes, like, can you make an argument compelling enough for twenty thousand dollars? Like, can you do that research, and like, present, say, an institution with enough material that they say “actually, this is worth twenty thousand dollars, and we will get twenty thousand dollars–worth of use out of this object, so we’re going to do it.” That’s the fun, right? Can you back up what you’re saying with something, when there is no established price?
“Pricing is real. It’s something that we actually have to talk about a lot, because so many of the things that we handle, aren’t obvious first editions.”
Rebecca Romney: And yes, that’s absolutely what we spend our time doing, but partially because we, by temperament, we love to research. This is what we do on our own free time. So yes, we have sort of turned that into the business strategy, of what research, what evidence can we bring to bear, to back up anything, especially when we’re dealing with, sort of, not necessarily unknown entirely, but things that have a less clear market record.
Benjamin Miller: What would you like to know about Garnet’s book but you don’t know? Are there other avenues of research . . .
Heather O’Donnell: I think there’s quite a bit that you could research. I would be interested . . . I mean, Garnet was famous in his way before this sermon for being much more militant than many of the black abolitionists, and that was where he and Douglass really fell out. Because Garnet was perfectly happy with armed insurrection, did not see a problem . . .
“Garnet was famous before this sermon for being much more militant than many of the black abolitionists. He was perfectly happy with armed insurrection.”
Benjamin Miller: . . . despite being a preacher . . .
Rebecca Romney: Well, this is why he raised the troops, is because once the Civil War happened, he was like, “Everyone’s finally in agreement with me. We need to do this.”
Heather O’Donnell: “Everyone get up, let’s go.” And so that makes it in a way all the more surprising that he would have been the one chosen to do this, because he was not a particularly conciliatory figure, and the text he chose to preach is not a particularly conciliatory text. I mean, it’s quite open about the fact that slavery wasn’t just, you know, a regrettable mistake. It was a sin. It was an outrage, it was crime. And it’s a national crime that he wants national reparations for. I would be interested to see where else Garnet has turned up in resistance literature across, not just the United States, but I would be interested to see, actually I would bet that if you did something on post-colonial Africa you could find Garnet woven through there, too.
Benjamin Miller: That would be interesting.
Rebecca Romney: Certainly, because of his interactions later . . . But that made me think of . . . If you’re talking about Garnet’s role in radical literature, and then you think of Lottie Jackson also being somewhat of a radical suffragette . . . how that book got there . . . we were just speaking earlier—we don’t actually know the total provenance of this book. We only know her particular period of ownership because she put her ownership signatures in them, in it. And who had it before? Who had it after her? Were there other radicals? You know, I have to wonder if, you know, if this was why this book was speaking to her: did this particular copy speak to other people in that same way?
Benjamin Miller: Right. Did she have a mentor who gave it to her?
Rebecca Romney: Who knows? I mean, we don’t know. So obviously we don’t write anything about that, that’s the one thing I would be very curious for this particular copy.
Benjamin Miller: If you could send a video camera back in time and see exactly how it went from hand to hand . . .
Rebecca Romney: Books are the type of thing, I’m sure you see this in a lot of antiques, but books rarely rise to the level for people of thinking it’s important enough to document their movement from person to person. And so it is sort of unusual to be able to trace any sort of detailed analysis, and you have to often just use clues within the book itself, like the ownership inscription.
Benjamin Miller: You know. we are a bit spoiled in silver, in that, because of the monetary value of the objects, they’re usually traced in wills and other family documents
Heather O’Donnell: Which is not the case for books, which are often in bulk. You’ll see, “they . . . “oh, they had two hundred books” and they don’t even get the titles, and books are often just handed from one person to another and lent and dispersed into the world. You know, it’s a really significant book collection that gets enumerated in a will or at an auction, and for the most part it’s usually shelf lots or, you know, as you say, two hundred books.
Benjamin Miller: Well if you can buy Harvard Classics by the yard, so . . .
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I always like to take a minute here to say a big thank you for listening, and to remind you that you can see pictures of today’s curious object at themagazineantiques.com/podcast, as well as on my Instagram, @objectiveinterest. If you’d like to send me comments or ideas for future guests, you can email me at email@example.com. I love hearing from you! And if you want to help spread the word—I know that you do!—a great way to do that is to leave a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts or whatever app you’re using. I really appreciate it. Alright, let’s get back to Heather O’Donnell and Rebecca Romney.
Benjamin Miller: I want to get a little meta and talk a bit about the business that you’re in, and the business that, in a larger sense, I’m in also. Rebecca, I wanted to ask you about, for starters, about your experience with Pawn Stars, which, if people listening know who you are, that’s one of the likely ways that they know you. So you’ve been on that show quite a bit as a book consultant, and you’ve been very successful in connecting with viewers, which is kind of a miraculous thing, to see someone in a specialized field, of very erudite collecting, and able to tell stories that people really enjoy, you know, that a mass audience enjoys, so what’s your secret? How can the rest of us fuddy-duddies work your magic? So, what’s your secret? How can the rest of us fuddy-duddies work your magic?
Rebecca Romney: Well, I will say . . . So, I recently gave a talk about this and the Grolier [Club], essentially. I would say that my experience on Pawn Stars in some ways had mixed results and it wasn’t always positive. But it was always worthwhile because of the positive results, because there were so many people who would say “I’m interested collecting because of you” or “I never thought of things that way” or maybe “I’m going to start reading again.” It was really . . . there are enough positive things that the negative seemed to sort of be outweighed. But, I mean, the only thing I can say when people ask me what filming was like for Pawn Stars, I say, “essentially, all I did was do the same thing that any bookseller does every single day.” Which is that . . . you know, you have a customer in front of you and, say, it’s a $5,000 book. You have two to five minutes to explain to them why that book matters and why you have priced it at $5,000. Right. And so the only thing that was different was cameras were there. Essentially. And so, in that way, it was very meta, which is to say that, you know, I wasn’t a regular on the show. I wasn’t an actor, I was really just called in to do what I do every single day and I would go in I would do that for an hour and then I would go back to work at the gallery I ran. Like that was my actual job.
“The only thing I can say when people ask me what filming was like for Pawn Stars, is that, ‘essentially, all I did was do the same thing that any bookseller does every single day.’ Which is you have two to five minutes to explain to a customer why a book matters and why you have priced it at $5,000.”
Benjamin Miller: Bauman.
Rebecca Romney: Yes. And then what resulted from that because of the amplification of television was suddenly the sort of crazy weird TV reaction where people were really relating in ways that were totally unexpected. But, in fact, it’s really what every dealer does.
Benjamin Miller: But, see, that’s so interesting to hear because, you know, oftentimes, I think, “Well, if I’m at an antique show and someone comes up and is interested in an object I’m going to have a conversation with that person that is going to be very different from the kind of conversation I would have with a friend of mine from a different field.”
Rebecca Romney: Yes.
Benjamin Miller: Right? Someone who is not already a committed collector, someone who doesn’t have any background in the field. So . . .
Rebecca Romney: I get it. So, I did have an advantage in that sense because I started in rare books in a gallery in Las Vegas. So, I was working for Bauman Rare Books—this is where I got started—and Bauman already, of course, had a very long history, has been open for decades, first in Philadelphia and then in New York. And because of that I was able to access a sort of institutional authority and have a type of rare book apprenticeship, as it were, to learn the material myself. But on my end where I was doing the talking I was dealing with new people, crowds who were not familiar with the New York rare book scene or of Philadelphia, even. Most of the people who came into the Las Vegas gallery had never even considered that you could collect books. They didn’t even know that this was a thing you could do. They think that all the books that are, you know, these sort of, like, $20,000 books, [that] they’re all in museums, this isn’t something that I can do. Or they say “it’s all $20,000 books there’s nothing I can collect,” which is also not true. And, so, for many people coming in it was a revelation. And I spent every single day working with people from square one. And it could be that where . . . I just over and over and over again have gotten so used to talking with people who didn’t know that this was possible. But I can see in their eyes every single time, you know, these people who come in who are enchanted by it and say “I can’t believe I found this, this is . . .” It just opens up a new horizon to them and that’s a really special moment for me. It was for myself. And it is when I see it in other people. So I think, oftentimes, that’s what I latch onto and that’s what I think about when I’m introducing someone to basic concepts in rare books.
“Most of the people who came into the book gallery I was working at had never even considered that you could collect books. They didn’t even know that this was a thing you could do. They think that all the $20,000 books are in museums, that ‘this isn’t something that I can do.’ Or they say ‘It’s all $20,000 books. There’s nothing I can collect,’ which is also not true.”
Benjamin Miller: Heather, how many women antiquarian booksellers are there?
Heather O’Donnell: Well, I don’t have a statistic for you on that. I mean there have been very, very accomplished, very, very influential women in the American book trade for a long time. I suspect that you are asking this because Rebecca and I are often interviewed on this question because the ABAA, the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America has recently launched a women’s initiative in an attempt to boost full membership in the ABAA for women dealers who currently make up about 15 percent, which, you know, seems quite low, really, at this date, 15 percent.
Benjamin Miller: Is that lower or higher than the number in Congress?
Heather O’Donnell: Oh. That’s like such a sad comparison. You’re killin’ me here. You’re killin’ me with this.
Benjamin Miller: I don’t even know if I want to know the answer to that question.
Heather O’Donnell: I mean, the good news is that, actually, I think it’s an entirely solvable problem. There are lots and lots of women who are already active in the trade who just don’t aspire to full membership.
Rebecca Romney: For any number of reasons.
Heather O’Donnell: For any number of reasons. Don’t necessarily see the value of that. So part of what we’re doing is trying to bring in new women dealers . . . support women dealers early in their career and encourage them to think about taking a leadership role in the trade because that ultimately changes the way that the trade feels to people who walk into a book fair, for instance. I would love to, you know, in the last years of my career walk onto the floor of the New York Armory and just see something like an equitable balance. That would be that would be fantastic if we could reach parity.
“We’re trying to bring in new women dealers. I would love to, in the last years of my career, walk onto the floor of the New York Armory and just see something like an equitable balance of men and women.”
Benjamin Miller: Do you think that there are problems specific to the antique business or to the antique book business that make it particularly difficult, relative to other fields, for women to get involved?
Heather O’Donnell: Well, I would say [that], like any like any sort of antiquarian or antique business, whether it’s books or anything else, you know, conservation and conservativism is a very important value. Rightly so. Conservative in the true sense of caring about the past and . . . paying attention to the past. Understanding what it was. Preserving the good parts of it. Which is fantastic and something that I think we really respond to. I mean, it’s what we spend so much of our time doing is trying to do justice to the artifacts of the past. But the result is, of course, that there is just a generally slow trajectory of change in any particular direction. People are very set in their ways. They like things done in a certain way. It’s not that easy to come into the antiquarian book trade, I would say, with a revolutionary idea and just get everyone all excited about something new and people won’t have the same booth they’ve had for twenty years. They don’t want any changes. They want to know what they’re doing.
Benjamin Miller: I wouldn’t know anything about that.
Rebecca Romney: Moreover, I think that a really useful comparison for books in particular is the rare book librarianship because the library world is dominated by women and that includes the rare book side of libraries. So, why is that the case in libraries but not in the trade? And I think that one of the key differences is that the trade, as we know . . . it’s very difficult to break into this as a business. It requires a certain amount of risk. It absolutely requires capital and it requires being able to weather a lot of monetary insecurity. And If you think about how even, you know, in the ’70s women weren’t even able to get loans in many cases. This is something that the whole like second wave of feminism was about, is women being able to even get loans for mortgages. You know, not being denied loans for mortgages just because they were pregnant, for example. And so you think about, yes, now we’re having a lot fewer problems with that because women are able to take more risk, but it’s not surprising that there were fewer women in 1960s dealers because what funds . . . what monetary risk could they take?
“The library world is dominated by women and that includes the rare book side of libraries. So, why is that the case in libraries but not in the trade?”
Heather O’Donnell: I think also . . . I mean, in a sort of similar, related way, one reason why, for instance, women are so well represented in the library and university world is that those are . . . So, there is an overarching institution there with the human resources department and policies and the book trade it’s just a whole bunch of, you know, entrepreneurs, many of whom are incredibly cantankerous and—
Rebecca Romney: We’re all doing this because we’re unemployable elsewhere.
Heather O’Donnell: It’s true, there is a sense that it’s like the Island of Broken Toys and it is just a bunch of really obsessive people who have decided that this is the only way they can work.
Benjamin Miller: We’re going to have to cut this from the podcast.
Heather O’Donnell: That’s ok.
Rebecca Romney: Don’t cut that! Keep that! Because no one would deny this. Everyone embraces this as complimentary.
Heather O’Donnell: Who’s going to come back and be like “oh no, it’s like a bunch of well-adjusted joiners.”
Rebecca Romney: No one would say that.
Heather O’Donnell: No. I guess what I would say is that the library and university world is one that has a strong institutional structure. Human resources, grievance committees. [There’s] sort of an overarching system that encourages, in a very deliberate way, things like parity between men and women.
Rebecca Romney: Diversity, generally.
Heather O’Donnell: Diversity in general, representation in general. It’s something that they feel at least, you know . . . they need to pay some sort of service to, you know, institutionally. The book trade is not like that because it is a bunch of small business owners, for the most part, just doing their thing.
Benjamin Miller: But to some extent isn’t this kind of what the initiative at the ABAA is about, is—.
Heather O’Donnell: Exactly, it’s to say, you know, “you feel like you can’t do this because you look at it and you think ‘oh, I could never run my own business, I could never do that, it’s too hard, it’s too difficult,’ to say ‘actually, in fact, it is difficult but it’s not impossible and it’s enormously rewarding.'”
Benjamin Miller: Yeah.
Heather O’Donnell: And being . . . there’s a lot to be said for being your own boss as we know and getting to buy what you like and do what you like. That is incredibly liberating and freeing but it’s not something that women in general are raised to think of themselves as doing. I mean, certainly, I know when I left . . . I was an academic before I became a bookseller and the expression of naked panic on my father’s face when I talked to him about my plan to sell books out of my apartment was, you know, I mean, I still remember. It was a keen, keen expression.
“There’s a lot to be said for being your own boss and getting to buy what you like and do what you like. That is incredibly liberating and freeing but it’s not something that women in general are raised to think of themselves as doing.”
Benjamin Miller: And he had already watched you go into academia. That must have been bad enough!
Heather O’Donnell: It’s like, “At what point will my daughter live a remunerative life?”
Benjamin Miller: Okay, so you’ve talked a little bit about the the entrepreneurial side but you could say some similar things about the collecting side. I mean, certainly I know that in our little world of silver and jewelry . . . not that there aren’t female collectors, there certainly are, but many of the top and, you know, sort of most serious most committed collectors are men. Part of that probably has to do with wealth.
Heather O’Donnell: I think not probably, directly.
Benjamin Miller: But there may be other things at play there too, right? Besides sheer financial ability.
Heather O’Donnell: Well, this is a subject, as you probably know, that is dear to our hearts because we—
Benjamin Miller: Yeah, I want you to give a plug here.
Heather O’Donnell: Well, you know . . . one thing that we have done for the past two years has been to run an annual prize for young women book collectors: a thousand dollars to the best book collection produced by an American woman thirty years old or younger.
“For the past two years we have run an annual prize for young women book collectors: a thousand dollars to the best book collection produced by an American woman thirty years old or younger. And best does not mean ‘most expensive.’”
Benjamin Miller: And best doesn’t mean “most expensive.”
Heather O’Donnell: Best does not “most expensive.” It doesn’t mean most expensive, it doesn’t mean the most obvious titles, it doesn’t mean putting a bunch of first editions on your dad’s credit card, doesn’t mean anything like that. What we are looking for is a kind of vision, a kind of curiosity and inquiry and obsession in a topic that maybe other people don’t see as valuable that, by that person’s attention and that person’s interest becomes of interest to other people as well. And what’s so interesting about that is that it’s honestly the strangest and most unusual things that make the best collections, that make the real contributions. We don’t need someone to put together another collection of first editions of F. Scott Fitzgerald. We all know what those books are. They’re great books but that, done just that way, is no longer an interesting intellectual pursuit.
Rebecca Romney: Groundbreaking . . .
Heather O’Donnell: There’s nothing original about it or, you know, there’s no curiosity in it. It’s just checking things off a list. What we want to see in all collectors—not just women and not just young people—we want to see it everyone, is just more latitude, more openness.
Rebecca Romney: Creativity.
Heather O’Donnell: More creativity, more interest in odd things. Embrace the weirdness. You know, just go for that strange thing that you don’t think anyone else could ever be interested in because it’s that collection, ultimately, that becomes the thing that makes us see other things differently.
Rebecca Romney: I think one of the reasons that we founded the prize, too, is a positive act of encouragement. Because what we have observed ourselves and what we’ve heard from many women collectors speaking to another reason why maybe you see fewer women collectors is that a lot of, I think, dealers are unaware of how quickly they can turn off a woman collector. You know, we hear stories from women collectors talking about walking into a booth with their husband and they’re the collector and yet the dealer totally ignores them and only talks to their husband. And so in some ways, you know, instead of focusing on the negative aspect of that like “ugh! women are treated terribly!” we wanted to focus on the positive aspect, and say, “women, we want you here. Women, there are interesting things happening here and you can contribute.” And the prize has been wonderful for that because it’s an excuse to talk about these interesting things people are doing and saying, like, “isn’t this great? And don’t we want to see more of this?” And the answer is “of course we do!” right? So it’s adding something constructive into this conversation to “build the future that we want to see.”
“Instead of focusing on the negative aspect we wanted to focus on the positive aspect, and say, ‘Women, we want you here. Women, there are interesting things happening here and you can contribute.’”
Heather O’Donnell: I mean, it was definitely inspired, in part, by just being told by a lot of, you know, I would say fairly lackadaisical older dealers, you know, “the young people—they don’t collect. The women—they don’t collect, they don’t buy the books, they don’t like the books.” Just thinking, “we know they don’t buy your books, but are you sure they’re buying no books at all? Is that what’s happening or are they just not buying them from you? Are they just not are they just attracted to material that’s not even on your radar or our radar, stuff that we just don’t see in our, you know, fairly insular little worlds that we’re living in?” What would it be like to actually get testimony from people about what they’ve been doing with their collections? And it has been, I mean . . . I think we can agree it’s like our favorite week of the year when we read these applications because we’re just like look at this woman in North Dakota, look at what she doing!
“It was definitely inspired, in part, by just being told by a lot of fairly lackadaisical older dealers, ‘The young people—they don’t collect. The women—they don’t collect, they don’t buy the books, they don’t like the books.’ Just thinking, ‘We know they don’t buy your books, but are you sure they’re buying no books at all?’”
Rebecca Romney: Well, in some ways it felt like a successful science experiment. We had this hypothesis like “I bet young people, I bet young women, in particular, are collecting really interesting things if we only give them a chance to say so.” And we put that out there and we were right. When we got . . . I’m gonna crow a little bit about that. When we got the applications we were so happy and there were . . . that’s why we . . . initially we only were going to do a single winner [and] we ended up doing a number of honorable mentions both years because we got so many interesting collections. We wanted to do as much as we could to highlight all of these different women doing different interesting things. And it is really a youth argument, too, as much as it is a woman argument. It’s diversity in a few different ways.
Benjamin Miller: That’s so interesting. I mean, if I had a dime for every time I heard “oh, young people these days,” you know, I wouldn’t have to be dealing antiques. I could I could buy them all instead of selling them. And yet, you know, I think I agree with you. I think that’s so wrong-headed. And at a certain point as a dealer I think you have to ask, “well, is the problem the whole world around me or is the problem me.” Maybe it’s the whole world but, uh . . .
Heather O’Donnell: I mean, the world has problems but there is energy out there and I think among younger generations today a genuine interest in the past and in, you know, in preserving history in archives and thinking about ways to talk about what in the past has brought us to the world we live in right now. And I want to do anything that we can to harness that and encourage it. And, you know, write some checks to it because that’s what I see is ultimately . . . those are the people who we want to be dealing with in twenty, thirty years. We want to see them come to fruition as collectors.
Rebecca Romney: This is to the benefit of the rare book world as a whole. If we want the rare book world to continue to thrive we have to encourage the next generation, not say, “ugh, young people don’t read. Young people aren’t interested in books.” Right? I mean, if you say that, like, then they have to come in spite of you. How about you invite them in instead?
“If we want the rare book world to continue to thrive we have to encourage the next generation.”
Benjamin Miller: Right, right. Yeah, and isn’t it true that young people are actually reading more books now than ever before?
Heather O’Donnell: In fact, it’s true. And young women reading more than anyone. So I think that there’s, like, an obvious case to be made for encouraging thinking about the book in a different way. You know, not just as a text, although that’s important, but as an artifact that has a lot to say historically as well.
Rebecca Romney: Material culture. Print culture.
Benjamin Miller: Ok, I want to get one more plug in. Rebecca, you had a book out last year.
Rebecca Romney: Oh! Yes.
Benjamin Miller: Speaking of reaching out to the public. Printer’s Error. Tell me about this book.
Rebecca Romney: Yes. Printers Error captures a lot of what we’ve been talking about here which is . . . the theme I think you’re seeing running through a lot of this is bridge building. How do we get more people interested in things that we think are important? And one thing we always have to keep in mind is that our world is so small and it’s so easy for us to just take for granted in our tiny little world that everyone in our world has the same assumptions. But we can’t assume that people on the outside of our world have the same values as us. So we have to reach out to them constantly and explain why it matters to collect. Why you should care about these as historical artifacts and what impact that has. And so Printer’s Error was really an attempt to build a bridge in a different format to a wider audience about book history, generally, and the basic conceit is finding the human element in book history. So who are the people and how can we make them feel more real. Because I think, you know, you put someone like Shakespeare up on a pedestal—that almost immediately becomes boring to people because that just . . . there’s no connection. it’s harder to connect with someone when they don’t feel real. And so we picked stories that pointed out, for instance, the human flaws: errors or feuds between people, that type of thing. And what that was hopefully demonstrating was that people five hundred years ago three hundred years ago = not very different from today. And if you can make that connection you can really appreciate what was happening then. And if that can pull people into why book history is actually really interesting, that’s the goal.
“Printer’s Error was really an attempt to build a bridge to a wider audience about book history, generally, and the basic conceit is finding the human element in book history.”
Benjamin Miller: Yeah, well, they probably didn’t collect antiques either. Well, I feel we should move toward wrapping up here. Can I ask you for some advice? On behalf of young collectors everywhere, What advice would you give to someone who’s starting out as a book collector today?
Heather O’Donnell: The first thing I would say is don’t worry if you don’t have a lot of money because that’s actually the least important part for a lot of collections. What you should think about is what do you know already a disturbing amount about that other people do not seem to find as interesting.
Rebecca Romney: Just because you’re obsessive and you’ve just gotten on this thing.
Heather O’Donnell: Right and you just somehow know this stuff. It could be anything.
Benjamin Miller: So look through your Wikipedia history and—
Heather O’Donnell: Look at your . . . or just, you know, are you someone who has collected every flyer from every band who played in your local club. Because that’s actually the beginning of something that is a historical archive. You know, start looking at what you’re passionate about, what you care about, what you show up for, what’s there when you show up that’s hanging out that gets recycled at the end of the night that maybe you take one home and you keep it. I remember after 9/11, actually . . . back then I was teaching at Princeton and I was taking the train—new Jersey transit—out there a couple of times a week, and in the weeks after 9/11 there were flyers all through the trains about terrorism and about what to look for and what to keep and I still have some of those because I just . . . I mean, it didn’t turn into a collection but I just felt like this is a throwaway thing that will mean something to someone one day when they see what New Jersey Transit printed on September 30, 2001. It was important. So, things like that, things that you can even pick up for free or for very very little but that are related to something you really care about. Start with that. Start with that if you have no money but try to try to build it out. Try to see how it connects to other things and maybe get some of those things in there. If you have that kind of—and, no, not everyone does but a lot of people do—have an eye for something even if it’s not something that’s traditionally considered collectible or academically valuable, follow that, do that, go deep into that. Don’t worry about collecting things because you think you’re supposed to like them or because that’s like . . . “those are classic books and that’s what you collect.” No, collect what you respond to. The deeper you go into that and the harder you work at it the more likely it is that you will actually put something together that will have the potential to change the way people write history. That they will look at that and they will say “there is something about this that tells us something we were curious about but we didn’t know. Now we know because look at this, look at what we have here. Here’s the archive here’s the evidence.” That’s something that everyone can do. No matter where they live, no matter how much money they have. And I think it is actually like probably the single most valuable service that you can do in a lot of cases for the historical record. To just take responsibility for that little bit of history and make it something that is really available to future generations.
“Don’t worry about collecting things because you think you’re supposed to like them. No, collect what you respond to. The deeper you go into that and the harder you work at it the more likely it is that you will actually put something together that will have the potential to change the way people write history.”
Benjamin Miller: What a fantastic note to end on. Thank you so much Heather and Rebecca, I really appreciate your time.
That’s our show for this month! I hope you enjoyed it. Thanks so much to Heather and Rebecca for joining me. Today’s episode was produced and edited by Sammy Dalati, and our music is by Trap Rabbit. I’m Ben Miller, and I’ll catch you next month.
Heather O’Donnell grew up in the library stacks and bookstore aisles of suburban Delaware. In 1989, she moved to New York City, where she studied English at Columbia, and held down a series of bookish jobs on the side: working the cash register at the Strand, shelving photobooks in the Avery Library, sifting the slush pile at Grand Street. While writing her doctoral dissertation in the Yale English department, Heather worked as a curatorial assistant at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. From 2001 to 2004, she joined the Princeton Society of Fellows, then left academia to pursue the rare book trade full-time. For seven years, she worked as a bookseller in the New York gallery of Bauman Rare Books, dealing in a wide range of material, from incunabula to modern firsts. In the fall of 2011, she founded Honey & Wax Booksellers in Brooklyn.
Rebecca Romney was born in Idaho, where she grew up reading everything from ancient Roman history to science fiction. She rebelled against her family of scientists by pursuing a degree in linguistics and classics in college. After a year teaching English in Japan, Rebecca helped launch the Las Vegas gallery of Bauman Rare Books in 2008, and became manager of the gallery two years later, eventually moving to Philadelphia to manage the central operations of the firm. Since 2011, she has appeared regularly as the rare book expert on the History Channel’s hit Pawn Stars. Now settled on the East Coast, Rebecca joined Honey & Wax in the summer of 2016, and published Printer’s Error, an anecdotal history of printed books, with HarperCollins in 2017.
For more Curious Objects with Benjamin Miller, listen to us on iTunes or SoundCloud. If you have any questions or comments, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.