jeff deutsch, sarah mcnally
New York United States

Honey, Wax, & Women Booksellers in New York

Literary Tourist in New York: Day 3

The train-ride down to Brooklyn took about 20 minutes. There was a well-stocked grocery store on the corner at the end of the street where Heather O’Donnell’s office was located. Lots of colourful fruits and veggies. Good price on avocados too. I grabbed an orange and peeled and ate it as I ambled up President Street to arrive right on time at 8.00am on the doorstep of a converted warehouse. I’d heard of Heather because of the book collecting prize she’d established for women under the age of thirty.

Announcing the Third Annual Honey & Wax Book Collecting Prize ...

I figured we must share a similar passion for books, and collecting, but more important, a desire to help encourage their appreciation and/or practice in wider society. It’s so important to have a healthy collecting culture working in tandem with special collections libraries; really essential if the necessary, and odd-ball, features of our current world are to be preserved. I wanted to capture some of Heather’s thoughts on this topic.  Listen here to her articulate musings:

As for her antiquarian book business Honey & Wax, she doesn’t carry a large stock, preferring to focus on several hundred books at a time, putting in the research, telling the stories in-depth, making the persuasive case for possession. It’s a similar approach to the one taken by Simon Beattie of We Love Endpapers Facebook group fame ( listen to our Biblio File conversation about said group here).

From Heather’s place I worked my way back across Manhattan to McNally Jackson Books on Prince Street where I’d teed up an interview ( thanks to Richard Nash) with Sarah McNally who now owns seven such stores across New York. Not bad for a young woman who cut her book-selling molars out on the Prairies in Winnipeg and Saskatoon.

The first thing I saw on display when I entered the store was Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence. Now, it doesn’t take a Zig-Zigler to know that featuring works of those who’ve recently died, as Bloom had, is a good sales ploy, but nonetheless, not two days earlier my daughter Eleanor had said to me that she wanted to get a copy of this book. Little thing, but noticeable. As I waited for permission to head downstairs I noticed that the shop recommended books

but just as important, it also highlighted those that customers themselves felt strongly about.

After a little disturbing and disrupting down in the basement, Sarah and I, having carved out the requisite space for chairs and recording devices, got down to discussing some of the sophisticated ideas that have contributed to her success selling books at a profit over the past decade. At the 40-odd minute mark we’re joined by Jeff Deutsch, director of Chicago’s Seminary Co-op Bookstore with his story of how to sell books, not at a profit. Listen here

You’ll want to listen too, to find out what New Yorkers like to drink, and what letting it sit for more than a couple of day looks like. Seriously, you’ll learn a lot by tuning in. I felt privileged to have been able to sit down with and question these two very cool, talented, committed booksellers.

Housing Works is right around the corner from McNally Jackson, on Crosby Street. I make a point of dropping in here, and at the Strand, every time I come to New York, for, while I love books of all kinds, I particularly love used books and the treasure hunting they encourage. This time round I dug out a copy of admired editor Robert Gottlieb’s essays, Near-Death Experiences. I’d pressed FSG publisher Jonathan Galassi fairly hard to try to get me an interview with Bob (now in his eighties) but to no avail. He was hard at work on another memoir and couldn’t spare the time. The book of his you really want, if publishing is your thing, is Avid Reader

“A splendid memoir [that] will be avidly read by anyone interested in the publishing world of the past sixty years,” says Michael Dirda.

I met up with my daughter Dorothy again at our favourite Mexican restaurant near

6 1/2 Avenue, if you can believe it, where I had a delicious big bowl of pulled something or other. Together we slurped back another couple of those addictive passion/mango/guava margaritas and 

were then set for an afternoon of farting around window-shopping and the like. Years ago I’d bought a couple of my all-time favourite shirts at Pink’s (sadly unwearable today due to corporate – corporal – expansion).

Really, only affordable these days – at least for the new  ‘turned-to-the-light-side’ literary me – when they’re on sale. Pity. I just love those pink triangles (!)

At the end of the afternoon I made my way down to Barnes & Noble on Union Square to interview James Daunt, the new CEO. Again, for some reason, we were delegated to the basement. Although the store was crowded with customers and a restaurant full of chairs set up in advance for a talk by Malcolm Gladwell, there were signs of dilapidation (the escalator on the first floor, for example, wasn’t working), brought on by a previous ownership intent on sucking profits out of the business. Listen here, as James explains how he plans to change this, and many other things:

From James, I hurried off back to meet up with Dorothy at Union Station where we caught the train back to Poughkeepsie. It was foolish to think that we could drive all the way back to Kingston, Ontario that evening. Besides, it turned out to be pretty foggy. We checked in to a no-tell motel close to the Canadian border. They told us not to park near the room door, given the avalanche of snow that capped the roof top.

The trip next morning back to Kingston and ‘home coming’ week was beautiful. Sunny and radiantly leafy. I dropped Dorth with her friends, wished her well, only advising that she might want to down a carton of yogurt or two before unleashing hell. Then, on a whim, I called up Laurie Lewis, famed Canadian book designer (Listen to our conversation about her years with the University of Toronto Press, here). She lives down on the waterfront in one of the high rises. We spent a pleasant hour swapping book gossip. She showed me this old photo of Will Rueter ( proprietor of the Aliquando Press.


Listen here to our conversation ) surrounded by U of T Press colleagues (no wonder he’s smiling), plus she gave me this book she’d published. It’s by her mother, Ellen Stafford, who ran a bookstore in Stratford, Ontario for many years. 

Leaving Laurie’s condo, I sauntered over a couple of blocks to Berry & Peterson’s Bookstore, sharing it with these home-coming alumni

I popped around the corner to Cooke’s for some English sweeties and

then got on Highway 401 back to Montreal.

The trip was a blast. Spending time with my dear youngest daughter in one of the most exciting cities in the world, engaged in favorite pastimes; doesn’t get any better.

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