Heather O’Donnell (PhD ’00, English)

What is your current profession/job? What did you study at Yale? When did you graduate?

I’m a rare book dealer, the owner of Honey & Wax Booksellers in Brooklyn. I studied English as an undergraduate at Columbia, and received my Ph.D. from the Yale English department in 2000; I wrote my dissertation on the American lecture tours of Henry James and Gertrude Stein. From 2001 to 2004, I was a member of the Princeton Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts, teaching in the English and American Studies programs. After Princeton, I changed careers, and went to work in the New York gallery of Bauman Rare Books to learn the rare book trade. In 2011, I launched Honey & Wax.

What do you like most about your current role? What do you find most challenging and/ or rewarding?

I love bookselling, which combines some of the most rewarding aspects of research and teaching, but involves no grading. I have the freedom to handle the historical material that most interests me, to explore tangents when I choose, and to work closely with collectors and institutions I respect. The most challenging part, of course, is keeping both books and cash continually flowing.

How did your time at Yale shape your career trajectory?

My part-time job at the Beinecke, a light-hearted counterpoint to my academic work, turned out to be the Yale experience most relevant to my eventual career.

What are the main skills that you acquired as a PhD student which help make you successful in your current career?

The wide reading required by the English department provided me with an expansive general frame of reference, and the research skills I developed at Yale help me catalog new books every day. Most importantly, my time at Yale taught me what it means to know something, how much work it takes to become a true expert. At this point in my life, I know what I know, and what I don’t know, and act accordingly.

Did you acquire any professional experience related to your line of work while in graduate school?

I worked part-time for Patricia Willis, who was then curator of the Yale Collection of American Literature. Given the run of the Beinecke, dispatched on all kinds of bibliographic errands, I developed an eye for books as artifacts as well as texts. Pat remains a mentor, and a good friend.

What advice would you offer PhDs who are interested in your line of work?

Handle as many books as you can, and spend some time apprenticing with an established dealer. One of the greatest American booksellers, Bill Reese, is based in New Haven, and you can search the directory of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America for members in every state. Also consider signing up for a week-long course at Rare Book School, or the comprehensive “rare book boot camp” of the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar. Rare book dealing is rarely anyone’s first career: most booksellers started on another path, and then swerved, so you won’t be alone.