Rebecca Romney is a principal of Honey & Wax Booksellers, an antiquarian bookstore in Brooklyn. Three years ago, the store founded the Honey & Wax Prize, which Romney, over the phone, explains is "an annual award for an outstanding book collection that was formed by a woman in the United States, age 30 or younger." The deadline for this year's Honey & Wax Prize is June 1st.
Romney explains that prizes for book collections have been given in the United States since at least the 1920s, but that those prizes have more often than not been by and for collections "associated with a university or some other institution." With Honey & Wax, Romney explains, "we were looking to create something that had slightly different parameters" in order to "reach outside of the more traditional methods that people were using."
Romney and Honey & Wax Booksellers founder Heather O'Donnell decided to create an award for collections curated by young women to address the "dismay" in book collecting circles that younger people might not be interested in reading and history and collections. "We felt very strongly that there was interest—it just haven't been gauged by a lot of the rare book trade."
Younger collectors, Romney says, often feel "intimidated" by the antiquarian book trade; they believe that their own collections lack the value of those put together by older or more experienced collectors. And some book collectors, she says, don't even realize that they are book collectors.
"A lot of the women that we sold to were less likely to identify as collectors," Romney says. "We'd be talking with someone about their book collection and we'd say, 'oh, that's such an interesting collection.' And they would say, 'oh no, no, I'm not a collector — I just buy the things I like.'"
A bunch of things you like, Romney points out, is a collection. She and O'Donnell started the Honey & Wax Prize because "we want you to own your identity as a book collector."
The traditional book collecting trade in America is made up of a population that is older than the general population, and pretty overwhelmingly male — or at least the men are louder. There's a kind of ugly machismo in certain book collecting circles — a prickly obsessiveness, a gatekeeping aggression — that turns off younger collectors, and collectors who may not share the same interests as the alpha males in the field.
But Romney quickly found that there's a robust and diverse collecting community in this country. "In our first year doing the prize, we got in contact with a few people who had run book collecting prizes. They told us to expect six to 12 applications of varying degrees of quality."
But that first year, Romney says, "I think we got something like 49 [applications] — way, way more than we expected, from over 20 states."
Those submissions each told a story: "this is my library and I'm really proud of it." Romney says the huge response "gave us a lot of hope. " They were so pleased with the response, in fact, that rather than just one one thousand dollar prize, Honey & Wax gave awards to "six honorable mentions who, through the generosity of an anonymous donor, we were able to give $200 each."
That first Honey & Wax Prizewinner "collected romance novels of the 1920s and 30s." Romney calls this "exactly the type of topic that the people who we might consider traditional collectors would roll their eyes at and say 'who's interested in romance novels?'"
But that collection had a lot to say. Romney says the owner approached the books by "looking at their place in history: what does it say about the career woman narrative in the 1920s? Or what is it saying about women's suffrage, or Prohibition?"
Another collection submitted to the Honey & Wax Prize was dedicated to the Geisha community in Kyoto. But not every one is tied to the distant past. Romney cites another woman who collected public health and safety pamphlets that were distributed in New York City after 9/11.
"If you're going off the beaten path" with your collection, Romney says, "you're probably not going to have as much competition. It doesn't have to be expensive, and you might be creating something of real historical value. Those overlooked things — that's exactly what universities want in order to get that documentation for scholars to study."
Romney urges any book-loving young woman who is eligible for the prize to consider their books in a new light. "Essentially, a lot of us don't even realize we're collecting," she says. "Go and look at your shelves and look for any themes, and you might actually realize, 'I've had an obsession about travel books specifically to Yosemite.'"
"I've had that happen to me too," Romney says. "Suddenly, I look at my shelf and I realize, 'oh, I guess I'm collecting feminist science fiction now.'"
There's a pleasure in learning that you're a collector. "Once you consciously make that shift in your mind, that's going to bring up all sorts of other opportunities. It's just a question of seeing it so that you can take conscious satisfaction in something you clearly already loved doing."