Indie bookseller flourishing on Island

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO | Michael Kinsey in his Black Cat Books shop on North Ferry Road this week, surrounded by his beloved tomes.

Enter Black Cat Books on North Ferry Road and be prepared to be immediately immersed in a sea of books, shelves, stacks of books, all shapes and sizes — at last count 20,000 books 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 belonged 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 — to put it mildly — 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 also brave ones. Independent bookstore BookHampton, which operates stores in East Hampton, Southampton and Mattituck, recently shut down their Sag Harbor location in hopes of finding a smaller space. Around the country, small bookstores are dwindling. According to the American Booksellers Association, there were around 2,000 independent bookstores operating across the country last year, nearly half the amount of stores open at the start of the millennium. With big chain stores and the rise 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. Amidst this 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. Readers of all ages and interests can find books from childhood gems such as Little Golden Books and Dr. Seuss to literary classics by Shakespeare and Steinbeck. The Black Cat carries vintage collectibles and rare, signed editions.

“You never know what you’re going to find. We have books that sell for $2 all the way up to $2,000,” Mr. Kinsey said. He compared the books priced at the higher end of the spectrum to antiques. “They’re collectibles,” he said. “You can’t find this stuff in new bookstores, or on Amazon.”

There’ also the thrill of the unexpected in a second-hand store, the bookseller said, different from a chain’s outlet, where upon entering you have a pretty good idea of what’s inside.

As an example, Mr. Kinsey pointed to an American first edition copy of “The Trial” by Franz Kafka priced at $2,500, and then a regular paperback edition Kafka’s masterpiece for a mere $5. The treasures to be unearthed here include signed editions by Pablo Picasso and James Joyce, to name a few.

While Black Cat Books carries an assortment of genres, among the most popular sellers are 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 records such as Ella Fitzgerald classics and Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” are in among quirky items, such as a Barack Obama “Chia Pet”

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

Both owners are looking forward to the summer months. That’s when the rack of books outside comes in to heavy play.” Bicyclists and people just passing by love to stop by and look,” Mr. Kinsey said.

In addition to the in-store selection, Black Cat also has a solid online presence. The online sales are a significant part of their business, since they often sell to museums and universities. They’ve shipped books all over the United States as far west as Seattle and San Francisco, and also abroad throughout Europe and China.

A final question: Why Black Cat? The name comes from an actual feline, a black cat the owners had for some 21 years. “His name was ‘Ubik’, which comes from a novel, and means ‘everything, all at once,’ like the word ubiquitous,” the bookseller said, surrounded, everywhere, by books.