I was at Black Cat Books on North Ferry Road one morning last week when it was raining hammers and nails outside, the torrent thudding against the door that has a sign listing opening and closing hours and, at the bottom, “Other times by chance or appointment.”
Killing time — noble ambition! — on one of the leather couches in the front room of the shop, I was hanging out with proprietor Michael Kinsey when the conversation turned to the madness of books, or rather collecting them, surrounded as we were by more than 10,000 of them housed in the old, carefully kept building.
The front room has shelves and tables of art and photography books. I’d been admiring a mint edition of Robert Frank’s masterpiece, “The Americans,” as Michael spoke of the tunnel vision of collectors. “Sometimes the art and photography people come to this room and never go to another part of the shop,” he said.
Serious collectors are not browsers, but hunters with no peripheral vision.
They are more than a little cracked — I speak from experience — afflicted with a condition known as “bibliomania.”
Michael and his wife, co-owner Dawn Hedberg, have been here for 10 years, but the books have been in residence longer. When they opened their first second-hand and rare bookstore in Sag Harbor in 1996 they used the quirky, shingled structure set back from the road here as a warehouse for the volumes in their overflowing inventory.
About 10 years ago they turned the warehouse into their retail store.
Records of ownership of the building go back more than 100 years, when Homer Griffing owned it and then it was the home of William Sandwald. An artist’s studio was once here, and there used to be gunplay in the back yard, Michael said, when one resident used a tree for target practice.
Michael and Dawn buy books nearly every day, from one volume to whole libraries. The Black Cat has an extensive online catalogue and ships books all over the world.
Psychologists agree that to collect is human, noting the extremely rare child who doesn’t have a stash of something, be it baseball cards, seashells or Barbie dolls.
But book craziness outlasts childhood.
In a 19th century tome on the subject, an Englishman, Thomas Frognal Dibidin — really — coined the word bibliomania and noted the obsession took many different rabbit holes, including: “First editions, true editions, black letter-printed books, large paper copies; uncut books with edges that are not sheared by binder’s tools; illustrated copies; unique copies with morocco binding or silk lining; and copies printed on vellum.”
Which reminds me of Myles na Gopaleen’s satire of the disease, as in a supposed catalogue entry: “Limited edition of 25 copies printed on steam-rolled pig’s liver and bound with Irish thongs in a desiccated goat-hide quilting, a book to treasure for all time but to lock away in hot weather.”
The reward of collecting, aside from the thrill of the hunt, Michael said, is to be in an almost permanent state of nostalgia, soaking in the warm emotion of recalling the past, with the physical object drawing your bath.
“You can read anything digitally, but nostalgia comes with the book itself,” he said. It’s the same with vinyl records — Black Cat has an impressive inventory — since any song can be heard from the ether, but holding the album cover in your hand and listening to the scratches transports you to first love, first home, first inspiration.
One collector Michael knows is besotted by J.P. Salinger. “He’s a completeist. He has to have everything ever printed by Salinger” including foreign editions, anthologies, etc. Black Cat made him happy recently by connecting him to a rare Modern Library edition.
When it comes to impassioned collecting, psychologists warn of a potentially bizarre endgame. The craving to possess isn’t alarming until it turns into hoarding, trying — always unsuccessfully — to fill an inner void.
Michael and Dawn have been invited to homes where a collector is selling a library but every book they touched, the hoarder would say, “Oh, no, not that one.”
I asked Michael if he was a collector. He allowed he had some “micro-collections,” such as the work of the cartoonist Gahan Wilson. Michael referred to him as “the king of macabre,” but it’s better to say Wilson’s work is worthy of Duke Ellington’s highest compliment — beyond category.
The artist, who lives in Sag Harbor, would take the jitney to the city once a week to pitch his cartoons to a New Yorker magazine editor and would stop at the shop to wait for his bus and … kill time. He and Michael became friends.
“I have some drawings of his, that he made personally for me,” the bookseller said. “He was always sketching, even when you were speaking with him.”
The rain had stopped knocking on the door and although time had been killed, it was now resurrected. Outside, the day was the color of ashes, refreshed by mists and breezes.
But I wasn’t really aware, thinking: That copy of “The Americans” — how much do you think he wants?