Jessica Kahan’s collection of romance novels from the Jazz age and Depression era.
Imagine a book collector, a person who has devoted their life to seeking out rare tomes in dusty shops, who arranges their finds, these prized possessions, purposefully and carefully, on a shelf just out of reach. Chances are you will have imagined a man, perhaps one with graying hair and spectacles. And a pipe.
Heather O’Donnell and Rebecca Romney at Honey & Wax Booksellers, in Brooklyn, are hoping to broaden our imaginative capabilities. This summer, they announced their first annual book-collecting prize, open to women under thirty. O’Donnell and Romney had observed that although the young women who entered their store were passionate about their collections, they rarely referred to themselves as collectors. Their hope is to “encourage young women who are actively collecting books to own and share that part of their lives, and to think strategically about the future of their collections.” An advisor warned them to expect eight to ten submissions, a dozen at most. When the dust had settled, they’d received forty-eight essays, from young women, age fifteen to thirty, around the country, all with accompanying bibliographies and wish lists.
We are pleased to unveil their first winner, who will receive a thousand dollars, as well as five honorable mentions, who will each receive two hundred dollars.
The winner of the first annual Honey & Wax book-collecting prize is Jessica Kahan, twenty-nine, a public librarian in Ohio. Kahan has collected some three hundred popular American romance novels of the 1920s and 1930s, all in their sensational original dust jackets, with an eye to creating a bibliography of fiction often dismissed as frivolous. Aiming “to capture women’s experiences through the lens of romance novels in the decades between women’s suffrage and World War II,” Kahan pays particular attention to the rise of the modern career woman as an archetype, and to the way historical events (the radio age, Prohibition, the Olympics) are reflected in the genre. Highlights of the collection are featured on Kahan’s blog, thegoodbadbook.
Honey & Wax says, “We loved this collection’s breadth and depth. Kahan’s refusal to condescend to her subject helps us see how a genre famous for its rigid conventions bends to reflect the changing lives of American women.”
Nora Benedict, twenty-nine, a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton, began by collecting the works of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, then expanded her scope to include the independent Buenos Aires publishing houses that employed Borges, including Editorial Losada, which published his translation of Kafka, and Victoria Ocampo’s Editorial Sur, which published his translation of Virginia Woolf. Benedict is currently assembling a complete run of Editorial Sur publications.
Honey & Wax says, “We admired Benedict’s turn from a single-author collection to one with historical research value as she tracked down obscure Argentine publisher’s catalogs and reconstructed the print history of Borges’s circle.”
Caitlin Downey, twenty-two, a senior at Edgewood College in Wisconsin, has collected almost a hundred and fifty original theater programs from the odori, the yearly public dance performances staged by the geisha of Kyoto, as well as books on the subject. Her collection, pursued online and shared with a virtual community of geisha fans, participates in a collective historical project in which fans share primary sources to reconstruct a landscape of now-lost okiya (geisha lodging houses) and teahouses.
Honey & Wax says, “We were struck by Downey’s disciplined pursuit of material researched and purchased almost entirely online, a model of collecting unknown a generation ago, and by her focus on printed ephemera, a strong trend among young collectors.”
Sherese Francis, twenty-seven, owner of J. Expressions Pop-up Bookshop and Mobile Library, is mindful of the redevelopment proposed for her neighborhood in Queens. Francis collects books by local writers, most of color, many of whom are self-published or published by independent presses, in an effort “to highlight and preserve some aspect of the communities that already exist here or existed here before.” Her collection includes chapbooks, zines, artists’ books, memoirs, novels, and poetry, all by writers from Queens, and shared with the community at local literary events.
Honey & Wax says, “We admired Francis’s commitment to preserving the books being produced in her immediate time and place. Her focused ‘archive of the now’ provides a local model of collecting we’d like to see practiced all over the country.”
Samantha Montano, twenty-seven, is an expert in emergency management. As a professional “disasterologist,” Montano collects firsthand accounts of disasters—fires, floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions—from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, accounts that predate the academic discipline of emergency management. She aims to preserve an increasingly relevant piece of the historical record in a time of rapid climate change: “We do not want the stories of how people have survived disasters to be a secret. We want that information to be shared.”
Honey & Wax says, “We appreciated the originality and urgency of Montano’s project, which brings together a group of largely forgotten primary sources. It was one of a number of collections that tackled environmental and ecological questions.”
Ashley Rose Young, twenty-nine, a doctoral candidate in history at Duke, began by collecting historic Creole cookbooks, then expanded her focus to the food markets of the port of New Orleans, a local economy historically dominated by African Americans and immigrants. Her turn to the marketplace inspired Young to collect novels, travel narratives, and printed ephemera, and to launch a new digital project, Sound Bytes: Historic Street Food Cries of New Orleans.
Honey & Wax says, “We enjoyed the unfolding narrative of this collection, as Young’s original interest in regional cookbooks laid the foundation for a more wide-ranging exploration of the cultural and culinary politics of New Orleans.”
Honey & Wax would like to thank the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, for offering all contestants free admission to the three major American antiquarian book fairs in 2018, and the editors of Fine Books and Collections, for sending each contestant a copy of the latest print issue. Now on to next year.
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