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Park Slope Woman Runs Rare Book Business in Dining Room

By Leslie Albrecht | September 13, 2012 8:12am

PARK SLOPE — Heather O'Donnell isn't the type of rare book dealer who puts on white cotton gloves before she handles her precious volumes. She's fine with plopping an 1881 edition of Henry James' "Washington Square" — which sells for $2,000 — on the kitchen counter next to a plate of marinating chicken.

O'Donnell believes books should be well loved and well used, and she launched her rare book business Honey & Wax Booksellers in that spirit earlier this year. To her, rare books shouldn't be locked away in cabinets like specimens. She likes that books can be used to form relationships when they're passed between people. Her favorite part of the business is uniting appreciative collectors with long-sought books.

"What I most enjoy is placing a book with someone who loves it and completely appreciates it and is thrilled to have it," O'Donnell said. "There's a real satisfaction in bringing someone a book that they've looked for for years."

Next month O'Donnell will release her first print catalog. She'll be a vendor at the Brooklyn Book Festival on Sept. 23 — the first rare book dealer to appear at the event, Only The Blog Knows Brooklyn reported.

She started her own rare book business after a seven-year career at Bauman Rare Books on Madison Avenue. O'Donnell, a life-long lover of books, started shopping at used bookstores as a teenager. She studied English at Columbia University, and got her first exposure to rare books during a summer job at The Strand. She taught English and American Studies at Princeton University, but eventually realized she wasn't interested in academia.

As she was deciding what to do next she was headhunted by a recruiter from Bauman. There she learned the pleasure of hunting down hard-to-find book treasures for serious collectors. She still remembers how elated a James Fenimore Cooper fan was when she tracked down a first edition of Fenimore's first novel, a disastrous Jane Austen ripoff. "He was so happy," O'Donnell said. "That's a day I think back on...When he saw it, his face just lit up."

Last fall she decided to strike out on her own so she could focus on selling literature (Bauman sells books on a wide range of topics), and be closer to her 8-year-old daughter, a student at P.S. 321. She also wanted to work in Brooklyn, with its lively literary scene.

"I sometimes felt like I was leaving a more interesting cultural center every day to go to less interesting cultural center — Midtown Manhattan — which sometimes seems like just an overpriced mall," O'Donnell, a 10-year Park Slope resident, said of her time spent working in Manhattan.

After a book-buying tour that included trips to London and Wales, and tracking down some inventory from the now-closed Pomander Bookshop in Morningside Heights, O'Donnell unveiled the Honey & Wax Booksellers website with 100 books for sale. The collection is housed in her Sixth Avenue dining room, and she'll sometimes leave clients to browse while she goes to check email in the other room.

Her priciest volume is an $8,200 edition of Beowulf printed by the Victorian publisher William Morris, but she also sells attractive antique editions of classics like "Wuthering Heights" for $25.

O'Donnell's library of rare works includes several books that belonged to notable people, such as an edition of T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" that belonged to photographer Walker Evans, who penciled his name on the first page. She also has a copy of Edmund Wilson's "The Shores of Light" that Wilson inscribed to Vladimir Nabokov and his wife, Vera. Nabokov scribbled notes on the back page, including, "The Russians are irresponsible liars."

O'Donnell likes those editions because they show how books can be used "to have relationships with other people," she said.

"I feel like the book trade in general caters to a particular model of collector that's very much about fetishizing an object or locking it away and putting it in a glass case," O'Donnell said. "For me, I'm really all about books in circulation…I like the evidence of human contact and transmission."