Indie bookseller flourishing on Shelter Island

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Enter Black Cat Books on North Ferry Road and be prepared to be immediately immersed in a sea of books. Shelves and stacks of books, all shapes and sizes, 20,000 of them on every imaginable subject. On a quiet morning last week the books were a silent audience to jazz playing softly from an old CD player.

A friendly face behind a counter at the back of the store belongs to Michael Kinsey, owner of Black Cat with his wife, Dawn Hedberg. They’re old hands at the book trade, starting their own collection years ago that grew to 10,000 strong. They eventually opened their first second-hand bookstore in Sag Harbor in 1996.

They had success, quickly garnering a customer base and a positive reputation. Soon after, they bought a space on the Island to use as their warehouse. However, escalating rent prices in Sag Harbor were a sign it was time for a change. They moved to the Island permanently, but relocated their business to Bridgehampton. Then in 2006 they decided to convert the warehouse on the Island into their primary retail space, since the commute wasn’t one they enjoyed.

“We love it here on the Island,” Mr. Kinsey said. “We’re in a great location — right in the center of town, and now we’re easily accessible to customers on both the North and South forks.”

They’re not only savvy business people, but brave ones. Independent bookstore BookHampton, which operates stores in East Hampton, Southampton and Mattituck, recently shut down its Sag Harbor location in hopes of finding a smaller space. Around the country, small bookstores are dwindling. According to the American Booksellers Association (ABA), there were around 2,000 independent bookstores operating across the country last year, nearly half the number of stores that were open at the start of the millennium. With big chain stores and the advent of eReaders, the future of small, independent shops and print media in general is uncertain.

But they aren’t doomed. Pew Research Center reports that 90 percent of eBook readers still read print as well. In the digital age, Mr. Kinsey and Ms. Hedberg  seek to find old-fashioned success in areas that big corporations and online retailers simply cannot — an intimate setting, personal service and carefully chosen books.

“There’s something for everyone,” Mr. Kinsey said. In this quiet secondhand bookstore, it’s easy to be overcome with the urge to just read. Book lovers will want to soak in everything and will never want at the Black Cat, since the collection has grown to carry a vast array of titles.

Readers of all ages and interests can find great books: from childhood gems such as Little Golden Books and Dr. Seuss to literary classics by Shakespeare and Steinbeck. Vintage collectibles and rare, signed editions are here, as well.

“You never know what you’re going to find. We have books that sell for $2 all the way up to $2,000,” said Mr. Kinsey. He compared the books priced on the higher end of the spectrum to antiques: “They’re collectibles. You can’t find this stuff in new bookstores or on Amazon.” Mr. Kinsey explained that their business is different from that of a new bookstore, where upon entering you have a pretty good idea of what’s inside.

He pointed out a first edition copy of “The Trial” by Franz Kafka priced at $2,500, then a regular paperback edition of the same novel for a mere $5. There are also signed editions of books by Pablo Picasso and James Joyce, to name just a couple.

While Black Cat carries an assortment of genres, among the most popular sellers are books related to the arts, specifically architecture, photo and design.

The second floor of the shop houses collected prints and paintings, also for sale. Vintage memorabilia, including recordings by Ella Fitzgerald and Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” and quirky items, like a Barack Obama “Chia Pet”, accompany the eccentric artwork.

Like the man said, there’s something for everyone.

Both Mr. Kinsey and Ms. Hedberg are looking forward to the summer months and a busier time of year. A rack of books lives outside now with the warmer weather. “Bicyclists and people just passing by love to stop by and look,” Mr. Kinsey said.

In addition to their in-store selection, they also sell online. Their online sales are a significant part of their business, as they often sell to museums and universities. They have shipped books all over the United States as far west as Seattle and San Francisco, and also abroad throughout Europe and China.

Why “Black Cat Books?” The name comes from an actual feline, a black cat the couple had for some 21 years. “His name was ‘Ubik’, which comes from a novel, and it means ‘everything, all at once,’ like the word ubiquitous,” the bookseller said.

Black Cat Books, located at 54 North Ferry Road, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. More information can be found at blackcatbooks.com.

Photo by Beverlea Walz: Michael Kinsey in his Black Cat Books shop on North Ferry Road, surrounded by his beloved tomes.