Joe Bray’s fascination with bees and beekeeping dates back to his childhood in San Diego, when his father kept bee hives, first on the roof of his family home in Pacific Beach and later in Rancho Santa Fe, where the bees lived among orange groves and feasted on orange blossoms. Bray, a dealer in antiquarian books who also works part-time as a bibliographer and cataloger in UC San Diego’s Mandeville Special Collections Library, has amassed an impressive and rare collection of books and ephemera documenting the history of beekeeping. He has also had a longtime interest in Mexican history, and currently collects a variety of visual media from Mexico, including photography and graphic broadsides.
Q: How did you first become interested in collecting?
A: When I was at Yale, where I was a History major, I stumbled upon a book, The Bee Man of Orn, (by Frank Stockton) at a sidewalk sale. That was the first book I purchased on beekeeping. I then began to frequent the bookstores in New Haven and started to assemble a collection of books and other materials on some of the pioneer beekeepers.
Detail from: The Theory of Practice of Bee Culture in All its Departments (San Francisco: Bancroft, 1861).
Q: Tell us a bit about the history of beekeeping and some of the rare items in your collection.
A: The history of beekeeping, especially in San Diego, is really pretty amazing. The pioneer beekeeper, John Harbison, who first brought bees to San Diego in the late 1860s, helped to transform San Diego County a decade later into the greatest honey-producing region in California. He made significant contributions to the beekeeping industry and was known for his patented hive, which became known as the “Harbison Hive.” His book, The Beekeeper’s Directory, Or the Theory and Practice of Bee Culture, published in 1861, is one of the cornerstones of my collection. I also am fortunate to possess a rare pamphlet of Harbison’s advertising the sale of honey from his hives. Another very unusual volume in my collection is The Feminine Monarchy Or the History of Bees, written by Charles Butler in 1634. It’s written with a phonetic spelling system.
Q: How many items are in your collection on beekeeping? What are you collecting now?
A: I have about 2000 books, prints, and other ephemera in my beekeeping collection. Given that many of the materials on beekeeping are now available online, I am only adding truly unique or unusual materials to my collection. I do visit Mexico regularly and I’m continuing to actively collect Mexican visual media, including vernacular photography. Most recently, I’ve purchased a number of fotoesculturas, which are painted photographs with a three-dimensional presence in carved wooden frames. They were hugely popular in the 1940s and '50s. The art died out in the mid-1980s, after the earthquake in Mexico City, and they were largely ignored by photography collectors. I purchased one at a flea market in Mexico City last year.
Q: You have worked for many years as an antiquarian book dealer. Given the rapid changes in information technology, how has the rare book business changed?
A: The Internet has definitely impacted collecting and the book market. With the availability of so many materials online, collectors now need to be much more focused. The very rare materials that aren’t accessible online are rendered all the more alluring and valuable to collectors today. It makes more sense to collect smaller groupings of select, rare materials these days than to be a completist.