Cue The Montage

I offer you a montage of the last two months, a time of intense packing, shipping, and unpacking. Historical context: a catalog, a hurricane, an election, a snowstorm, and a third-grade unit on Mexico. The soundtrack: loud.

In October, Brooklyn’s Greenlight Bookstore launched their monthly First Edition Club, the first of its kind in New York City, with a panel discussion on the printed book in a digital age. I was thrilled to represent the local rare book scene, and got a little overexcited about Marianne Moore and zebra wallpaper. It happens.

A couple of weeks later, Honey & Wax exhibited at the first annual Designers & Books Fair at FIT, which brought together designers, publishers, and readers united by a shared fascination with the book. “Todd Oldham admired my Charley Harper,” a sentence I never thought I would say, I said.

Tonight I’m in Boston, on the first night of the 2012 Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair. The highlight so far has been Francis Picabia’s portrait of Gertrude Stein, which Pittsburgh’s Caliban Book Shop is offering for a quarter-million. People, buy more books. We need a brisk Christmas season at Honey & Wax to make this purchase happen.

And looking ahead to the holiday season, mark your calendars for Saturday, December 1, when the First Annual Brooklyn Holiday Book Fair comes to the Old Stone House in Park Slope, featuring rare, vintage, and out-of-print books from emerging booksellers all over Brooklyn. At 4:30, the great Pete Hamill will read the 1906 first edition of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” offered for sale by Honey & Wax, and then we can all have a drink.

Finally, the first Honey & Wax catalog is now available at the following link:

Honey & Wax Catalog One

But you know you can have a hard copy if you want. I’ll be at the post office anyway.

Popping Up

Today someone asked why I haven’t blogged more about the comparative frenzy here at Honey & Wax, and I said: it’s a frenzy! Frenzies take time. My time. And I just ran out of shipping labels, and these new books aren’t going to catalog themselves. (I checked. No go.)

But here’s a quick recap of the past few weeks, with slide show:

On September 23, Honey & Wax set up shop at the Brooklyn Book Festival, showing — and even selling — some books! The booth was swarmed.



We had some advance copies of Honey & Wax Catalog One for the taking. Regular copies mail this week.

We’ve had some great press recently: a profile with DNAinfo:

DNAinfo: Honey & Wax Booksellers in Park Slope

And an interview with Fine Books and Collections:

Bright Young Things: Heather O’Donnell at Honey & Wax Booksellers

Finally, in honor of the Jane Austen Society annual meeting in Brooklyn this weekend, Honey & Wax is teaming up with vintage powerhouse Sterling Place on a pop-up shop dedicated to great English women of letters.

If you’re in Brooklyn this week, stop by 363 Atlantic Avenue (between Hoyt and Bond), and check out the books! Sterling Place owners Elizabeth Crowell and Robert Wilson will be offering a range of Austen-inspired antiques and gifts as well.

Sterling Place

I’ll be at Sterling Place in spirit, drinking tea and admiring vintage tobacco cabinets. In body, I’ll be on line at the post office, mailing these catalogs. Stay tuned.

High Holidays

Back in February, a couple of weeks after Honey & Wax launched, I posted about a Kickstarter project I admired, The Hundred Story House:

The Hundred Story House

Seven months later, the Brooklyn schools are closed for Rosh Hashanah. Lil and I walked down to our local playground to find . . . the Hundred Story House in real life!

The original Kickstarter proposal was for an installation in Cobble Hill, but evidently the project has migrated east to Park Slope. Lil and I retraced our steps, filled a tote bag with books she’s outgrown, and stocked one of the parlor floor shelves.

Never leave, Hundred Story House. There will be books.

Get Ready

Let’s be frank: I can barely account for my movements of the past six weeks.

One minute, I was in the Rockies, squinting my way through high-altitude bibliography drills after another late night with my Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar classmates (bad influences, all). Then four weeks of focused, round-the-clock endurance cataloguing in Brooklyn, in preparation for Honey & Wax Catalog One.

Two days ago, I signed off on the final proofs, and now I’m looking around and blinking. Look at these books I haven’t unpacked! And these unanswered e-mails! Onward.

Yesterday, a curious local reporter stopped by to check out what’s happening in our dining room:

Brooklyn News: Honey & Wax Booksellers, September 2012

For the record, I don’t usually keep the books and the marinating chicken on the same counter. The light was just better in the kitchen.

And in exciting upcoming news, Honey & Wax will be a part of the Brooklyn Book Festival on Sunday, September 23, in booth #84, handing out honey stix and (if all goes according to plan) copies of the new catalog:

Brooklyn Book Festival 2012

So get ready! Come by and say hello! This fall is our fall.

Big Sky

So tonight I ate steak and beans off a chuck wagon in the shadow of Pike’s Peak, learning the subversive history of modern hand-printing — who knew about the Russian hectographers? — at the close of the first day of the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar. That is all, for now.


Plot Twist

Last week I saw Hanah Ryu Chung’s accomplished documentary short, Epilogue: The Future of Print, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. For twenty-five lyrical minutes, Chung weaves together interviews with a group of hardcore bibliophiles in the Toronto area — independent and antiquarian booksellers, fine press printers and bookbinders, book artists and designers – on the future of the printed book. You can watch it here:

Epilogue: The Future of Print

Acknowledging that electronic books are still in their earliest stages, the contributors speculate about the role of print in a digital age: drawing a distinction between the aesthetic and the informational aspects of a book; noting the relative stability of print as a medium in contrast to fast evolving, fast obsolete digital formats; comparing the different sensory experiences that printed books and e-books (as they exist today) offer the reader. As bookseller Stephen Fowler observes: “the more that culture becomes just this invisible abstraction stored on some server somewhere . . . the more that tactile, physical culture is going to seem precious.” Printed books, in this narrative, have a special role to play in the streaming future, satisfying our innate desire to handle a well-designed object, to own it, to give it, rather than simply clicking “share.”

Almost all the contributors expect printed books and electronic books to coexist in the future, playing different roles, meeting different needs, appealing to different impulses. And yet what’s jarring about Epilogue is the mawkishly elegiac tone of the film, so at odds with the optimism expressed in it. The funereal strings! The bare branches! The pervasive Canadian drizzle! Our way of life has fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf. The book is over, and this is its Epilogue.


Well, no. Quite the contrary.

So what’s up? One of the contributors to Epilogue is Joanne Saul, owner of Toronto’s TYPE Books, the site of this year’s animated short The Joy of Books, which now has over three million hits on YouTube. Imagine how different the experience of watching Epilogue would be if the same interviews were presented in the spirit of The Joy of Books:

The Joy of Books

But if they were, Chung’s documentary would have to be titled something like New Chapter or Plot Twist.

Sometimes there’s an unseemly rush, among those of us with a passion for the printed book, to mourn the codex while it’s still alive. Maybe it’s a way of getting out ahead of our own projected disappointment, but it’s distracting, and ultimately defeating. An object crafted of paper and thread, leather and glue, is no longer the default format for the transmission of knowledge, and some genres of book, whose work is better done digitally, are gone for good. But the pleasures of the printed book are immediate, and easily grasped, and I don’t worry that my grandchildren –who will undoubtedly spend much of their time processing digital media, as I do — will regard the Honey & Wax shelves as an inaccessible stack of punched cards, an archive whose meaning is lost to them.

As long as they can read, it won’t be.

This Father’s Day

Yes, Father’s Day is this Sunday, but there’s no need to panic, especially if the father in question is a Mad Men watching, midcentury modern appreciating, graphic designing type of dad. I give you: a 1946 first printing of At Daddy’s Office, illustrated by Caldecott winner Roger Duvoisin. Pour Daddy a martini, and watch him reflect on where his stable of stenographers has gone.

At Daddy's Office, 1946. Productivity is off the (framed) chart!


Mary scans the tabloids.

Welcome to the office!

"Up they went, all the way to the 22nd floor."

Miss Wilcox on the water cooler.

Miss Scudder on the keyboard.

Mary, intoxicated with power, enjoys her first restaurant lunch.

You’re welcome. Happy Father’s Day!

All About Sarah

I’m back from the London fairs with forty books and a sunburn, and will be at my desk for the next month, cataloguing and regaining my pallor.

On that desk, at my right hand, is my new favorite book: a handsome 1809 edition of Elegant Extracts: or, Useful and Entertaining Pieces of Poetry, edited by Vicesimus Knox, who produced a series of popular literary anthologies in the late eighteenth century. It’s a lively, eclectic collection of English poetry — but that’s not why I love it.

This copy of Elegant Extracts is warmly inscribed by Sarah Siddons, née Kemble (1755-1831), the greatest tragic actress of the English stage, to her niece Frances Crawford Kemble: “My dear Fanny / Accept from my hand this just tribute to your taste and judgment — but pray let it not be necessary to remind you sometimes of / Your affectionate Aunt / Sarah Siddons! / Dec’r 26 1819.”

“The Siddons” dominated the London stage for thirty years, captivating the crowds and counting Edmund Burke, Samuel Johnson, and Edward Gibbon among her admirers. William Hazlitt wrote of her: “Power was seated on her brow, passion emanated from her breast as from a shrine. She was Tragedy personified. She was the stateliest ornament of the public mind.” Tall and regal, capable of projecting great anguish and strength at once, Siddons owned the English tragic repertoire as no single actress ever had.

Joseph Roach writes at length about the cult of Siddons in It (2007), his terrific study of “abnormally interesting people”: “she was recommended to tourists as one of the obligatory sights of London, like the Abbey or the Tower Lions. On days when she acted at Drury Lane, crushes occurred at the box office hours before it opened. When she toured the provincial cities, London pickpockets followed her to work the large (and presumably less street-wise) crowds that they knew she would draw there. When she played opposite John Wesley’s sermons, she decimated his attendance. She sat for every major artist of the age.” Joshua Reynolds, who painted Siddons in character as the Tragic Muse, signed his name at the base of her dress: “I have resolved to go down to posterity on the hem of your garment.”

Sarah Siddons as The Tragic Muse

Charles Lamb testified to her uncanny power when he remarked, with mixed feelings: “We speak of Lady Macbeth, while in reality we are thinking of Mrs. S.” Her defining role was captured in the Wedgwood chess set, designed by John Flaxman, which used Siddons as Lady Macbeth as the model for the Queen. The set is still produced by hand, and you can add your name to the waiting list on the Wedgwood website; the price today is $32,000.

Her talented niece Frances Crawford Kemble, the book’s recipient, had also been a stage actress before marrying Robert Arkwright, whose Sutton Scarsdale bookplate appears on the pastedown.

Frances Crawford Kemble, Mrs. Robert Arkwright, as Saint Cecilia

Frances would go on to make a name for herself as a composer of songs, and was painted in the role of St. Cecilia, patron saint of musicians. (Her younger cousin, Frances Anne Kemble, daughter of Charles Kemble, would succeed their aunt as the most celebrated Shakespearean actress of her day.) Siddons inscribed this copy of Elegant Extracts in 1819, some years into her retirement from the stage. Even then, Hazlitt remarked, her occasional appearance at the theater as a patron stole the show from the actors: “in herself she is as great as any being she ever represented.”

Elegant Extracts includes a hundred pages drawn from Shakespeare’s plays, including speeches that Sarah Siddons had made her own on the London stage: “Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here / And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full / Of direst cruelty!” On that note, I leave you with the sharpest twentieth-century tribute to Sarah Siddons, the tragic muse’s fall into Hollywood: “I wouldn’t worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be.”

The Sarah Siddons Award (All About Eve)

Modern Nymphs

It’s an Olympic year. Let’s spare a moment for the Greeks, and their modern acolytes. Would you look at this book?

Modern Nymphs appeared in 1930, in an edition of 150 copies: a hard, brilliant Art Deco gem. It opens with Raymond Mortimer’s essay on the role of clothes in modern life. Mortimer is funny, but not flippant: he treats fashion seriously, not just at the level of couture, but at the level of the street: “Most clothes, like most pictures, are bad. The shop-windows of Oxford Street are as depressing a spectacle as the walls of the Royal Academy.” And yet a few women, mainly French, especially Chanel, manage to express something original and alive in the way they compose themselves: “our feeling for the stream-line seems an indestructible part of the civilisation in which we live. We insist on it in motor-cars, we are beginning to prefer it in architecture and we are unlikely to lose our taste for it in women.”

And what women: Thomas Lowinsky’s full-page illustrations give us the procession of the nymphs, hand-colored en pochoir, each with a classical title and theme. At first glance, they look much like their sleek commercial counterparts, the fashion plates of George Lepape and Paul Iribe. On closer inspection, though, these modern nymphs are far stranger. Aphrodite, in evening gown and cocktail rings, slinks past ruins and skyscrapers, while Prosperine scowls across a field of smokestacks. A smartly suited Danae, looking much like “the inspired, the imperial Chanel,” waits for the weather report on the wireless. (Showers, with a chance of Zeus.) Clyte turns from Apollo, and bravely exposes her torso to the sunlamp. The Harpies in their modish hats perch in an empty landscape out of De Chirico. Tiny airplanes and zeppelins dot the horizon. A speedboat zips past. The tableaux are composed, elegant, exact and surreal: as pointed and satiric an invocation of the classical sources as James Joyce’s in Ulysses. As Mortimer observes in his introduction: “We live on our ancestors, degenerate and devitalised . . . were it not that machines and clothes still develop new and auspicious forms.”

Certainly, everyone involved in the production of Modern Nymphs had high modernist sympathies. Mortimer was an art critic, later editor at The New Statesman; his friends included Jean Cocteau, Tristan Tzara, and Louis Aragon. Lowinsky, a book artist of independent means and obsessive perfectionism, produced plates for a number of fine and private presses, including Nonesuch, Curwen, Shakespeare Head, and here Haslewood. Publisher Frederick Etchells, associated in turn with Roger Fry’s Omega Workshop and Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticists, would go on to become Le Corbusier’s English translator. All three had close ties to the Bloomsbury group, and it’s not hard to imagine a reader like Virginia Woolf delighting in the pensive Circe, cocktail shaker at hand, preparing for her party with the naval officers.

In his closing, Mortimer tells the future: “Towards the spring of 1933 it will become inconceivable that Jove could ever have had traffic with ladies as frumpish as the Nymphs in this book. And for twenty-five years or more you will look at these drawings only to be reminded how grotesque clothes once were. Then one of your cleverer children will pick the book up, and discover a quaint charm in these old fashions. Someone will give a party in which everyone has to appear in the clothes of 1930. . . . ‘Could anything be more delightfully George the Fifth!’ the young people will exclaim. ‘Look at Helen’s hats! And Daphne! I’m sure our clothes will never look so amusing and old-fashioned.’”

Your Bookish Future

Last week, I spent a couple of days in the subterranean steampunk corridors of MIT, attending the symposium Unbound: Speculations on the Future of the Book. The halls were crowded with publishers, librarians, critics, and conservators, and the rare book trade was represented too: John Waite in the back, and Ian Kahn of Lux Mentis to my right, energetically tweeting about simulacra. I took a few notes of my own.

Poet Christian Bök kicked off the event with a reading from his Xenotext project, in which he translates an original poem into a DNA sequence, then implants the sequence into the genome of a germ so that the protein generated in response forms a second poem. Given the ability of Bök’s pet bacterium, Deinococcus radiodurans, to withstand acid, dehydration, vacuum, and extremes of heat and cold, and to repair damage to its own DNA, this “extremophile” germ could, theoretically, serve as a stable literary archive capable of outlasting human life on earth.

In sum: D. radiodurans makes the paperback vs. Kindle debate look a little petty.

The loopy sci-fi quality of opening night didn’t last — as I suppose it couldn’t. Most of Friday’s presenters addressed the practical forecast for codex and screen, author and audience, over the next decade or so. The talk that really struck me came from digital media pioneer Bob Stein, now head of the Institute for the Future of the Book, who invited all of us to join the beta test of SocialBook, an ambitious post-print publishing platform.

Stein observes that the act of reading is evolving quickly from a solitary activity to a more collaborative one. In all aspects of its design, SocialBook foregrounds unfolding conversations between reader and writer, and among readers in a group, making every book, old and new, a virtual place where people communicate directly with one another.

We looked at a page of Cervantes in SocialBook. A group of readers – in this case, a high school Spanish class and their teacher – had marked up the text, the wide margins dense with conversational threads, represented visually in a way familiar to anyone who uses Facebook. The students still read Don Quixote as written, but an integral part of that process was responding to one another responding to Cervantes. Outside the classroom, SocialBook allows readers to join multiple communities, in real time and across decades. My unborn granddaughter, reading Middlemarch on SocialBook in the year 2055, could conceivably pull up comments I made before her birth, passages I highlighted, reading the novel along with me and adding her own observations for future generations.

Knowing myself, I can’t imagine giving up the solitude of being lost in a book, the luxurious reprieve from chat, but the social aspects of reading are close to my heart as well, and to the heart of Honey & Wax. When I first considered starting a rare book company, I thought of dealing solely in association copies: books presented by one writer to another, books from the libraries of interesting people, books signed and inscribed and annotated in ways that traced a history of human connection. I abandoned that plan as too narrow, but Honey & Wax remains dedicated to books as a form of social currency, a means of connecting writers to readers, and readers to one another. “Use books as bees use flowers,” the line that inspired our name, reflects an active and communal model of reading, generating something new and sweet and useful out of the perennial classics.

Honey. Wax.

Whether SocialBook takes off or not, some kind of networked reading experience seems inevitable, bringing people together around (or even inside) the text of the books that matter to them. I don’t believe, though, that books as artifacts will disappear. We’ll still own books in the future, we’ll just demand more from them than we have in the past. The ones we choose to keep on our shelves, the ones we share with the people we love, will have to justify their material presence, by being unique or beautiful or surprising in some way, and that’s good news for the rare book trade, because it makes every reader who buys a book into a collector.

That said, I can’t deny that in our collaborative networked future, I’d also love to handle the first edition of Bök’s Xenotext, the living poem mounted on a laboratory slide. If Deinococcus radiodurans can withstand nuclear winter, I’m sure it can survive my refrigerator.

Bookish cupcake, Unbound Symposium, MIT.