Things we love: Shelter Island’s Black Cat Books

A sample of the selection at Black Cat Books on Shelter Island. (Credit: Ambrose Clancy)

A sample of the selection at Black Cat Books on Shelter Island. (Credit: Ambrose Clancy)

Do you love second hand bookstores, but hate that most of them look like a bomb went off a few minutes before you arrived?

And you look forward to happily killing time browsing in the stacks, but begin choking immediately on the dust of the ages floating in the air?

Then head for Shelter Island’s Black Cat Books, where the air is fresh, the shelves and stacks organized and the entrance is filled with light.

Don’t judge this bookstore by its cover. The entrance to the Black Cat looks like it will be more book closet than shop. But open the door of the trim wooden building and the place opens out to a spacious sitting room surrounded by shelves and comfortable leather couches. One rack has second hand CDs of jazz, classical and opera.

A passageway of bookshelves leads to another high-ceilinged room with stacks of books — there are more than 10,000 in the place — with a view at the rear of a small garden.

Here you’ll find Michael Kinsey, co-owner with his wife Dawn Hedberg, usually at work on the computer, updating the extensive online catalogue. The Black Cat ships books all over the world, Mr. Kinsey said, and “we buy books nearly every day, from one book to whole libraries.”

There are treasures here. Mr. Kinsey takes down a large book written by the philosopher Francis Bacon, and points to the bottom of the title page: “Printed by S.G. and B.G. for W. Lee, London, 1671.”

The interior of Black Cat Books on Shelter Island. (Credit: Ambrose Clancy)

The interior of Black Cat Books on Shelter Island. (Credit: Ambrose Clancy)

At random he brings down a small, beautifully preserved first edition of Lewis Carroll’s poems, and points out a first edition of Ron Hubbard’s first novel, “when he was a science fiction writer and not a religious leader,” Kinsey said.

Nearby was a volume that only a shop like the Black Cat would have — a book owned by the German ambassador to China during the Boxer rebellion in the early 1900s, who was killed by Chinese revolutionaries.

“Irony,” Kinsey said. “His book survived but he didn’t.” He added that there was a double irony, translating the book’s title: “Customs of the Chinese.”

But those not in the market for collector’s items, the shop has bargain basement prices on contemporary fiction and nonfiction, plus photography and art books.

Upstairs there’s an extensive vinyl record collection along with prints, old photographs and postcards, all presented in an orderly and spotless fashion. Especially fun is a collection of old pulp fiction paperbacks, with cover illustrations in lurid color of gorgeous molls in various sorts of distress.

On one shelf are books perfect for gifts for the book fiend on your list; handsome, leather bound, signed copies of authors such as Doctorow and Mailer, going for only $20 or $30 a copy.

Asked about opening hours, Mr. Kinsey points to the sign on the door: “10 a.m. – 5 p.m.

7 days a week

Other times by chance or appointment.”

Oh, and why “Black Cat?” The name comes from an actual feline, a black cat the owners had for 21 years. His name was “Ubik,” which comes from a novel, Mr. Kinsey said.

It means “everything, all at once, like the word ubiquitous,” the bookseller added, surrounded, everywhere, by books.

Black Cat Books is located at 54 N. Ferry Road, Shelter Island.