At Black Cat Books on Shelter Island, store manager Lucas Dupree held one of his personal favorites, a signed copy of “Dracula: A Toy Theater,” featuring set designs and costumes from a production of Broadway designed by Edward Gorey.
In 1996, Dawn Hedberg opened Black Cat Books in Sag Harbor, a second-hand bookstore filled with literary treasures, from vintage collectibles to first signed editions. For a quarter of a century, much has happened in the book world.
For starters, her store is now on Shelter Island, where she moved in 2007 in order to escape rising Sag Harbor rents. But, even before that, Amazon came in in the mid-90s and turned the new book market upside down forever. Then, in 1997, Alibris, the old books company, revolutionized the business by going online to provide a bridge between old books and new technology. And after Amazon launched the Kindle in 2007, the outlook for the book business was bleak.
Borders, the national bookstore chain, went bankrupt in 2011. Barnes and Noble closed about 150 stores between 2007 and 2016. Independent bookstores were shrinking. Second-hand bookstores were closing quickly, while charity stores were no longer accepting second-hand titles. Physical books, it seemed, were worth little more than the paper they were printed on.
Yet ironically, literature seems to be doing better now. Used book sellers like Ms. Hedberg have harnessed the potential of the Internet to buy and sell and have brought their businesses online. In doing so, they began to redirect the global flow of used books from extinction (and landfills) to readers who genuinely care and appreciate them. In essence, the second-hand bookseller has turned into a kind of antique dealer by putting literary nuggets on the Internet, where those most interested can easily find them. (The Black Cat website includes a signed first print of the US edition of Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” for $ 350, for example.)
An impressive selection of rare and used books can also be found at Sag Harbor Books and its sister store, Southampton Books.
“We have several thousand collectible books in our inventory between the two stores,” said Greg Harris, co-owner of the stores with Daniel Hirsch. Strolling between the shelves and closed bookcases of collectibles in Sag Harbor reveals a treasure trove of original gems and a few trophy books, such as a signed first edition of “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947) by Tennessee Williams, with a dedication to a member of the original Broadway cast. Price: $ 30,000. There is also a “rare copy” of a 1939 first edition of “The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler, and a 1920s first edition of “The Voyage Out” by Virginia Woolf for $ 12,500.
But these aren’t all trophy books. A browse of the Sag Harbor store and boutiques website shows a range of well-known titles for only hundreds of dollars and even less.
“Good condition books are always an investment because the best books in the best condition retain their value and increase over time,” said Harris. “We encourage customers to browse in-store or our website, where you can see the range of prices and titles available. “
The internet, it seems, has transformed a once local – almost parochial – business into a global business.
“Honestly, Amazon and eBay have given us an incredible opportunity to offer our books beyond our zip code,” said Ms. Hedberg of Black Cat Books. “It has helped keep the store profitable year round when retail sales here are so seasonal.”
Entering the Black Cat store is like receiving literary food. While it specializes in old and first edition art books, you’re just as likely to find this old Penguin novel for a few bucks, and the children’s section is extensive. The shop is crowded but tidy, and spending time browsing the many rooms and each meticulously detailed section is encouraged. There is always someone on hand to help – such as “my valued store manager, Lucas Dupree,” Ms. Hedberg said – but the goal is clearly to allow a visitor to linger and savor the hiding place. literary curiosities of the store.
Although there are no official statistics on the size of the used book market, a 2018 survey by Statista found that in the UK and US, over 50% of purchases of books were second-hand titles. So, does this mean the future is bright for used book stores?
Not quite, says Hedberg. “You have to be half-crazy to be in this business. . . . I don’t know anyone who’s been there for whom it wasn’t a labor of love. Organize a store, edit it, go there every day and open it. And sometimes in the dead of winter you set there, and you’re lucky if somebody comes in. It is not easy, especially in an area where you are talking about rents of $ 10,000 per month and more for tiny spaces in a very seasonal market. . . . I think the future of book sales is probably exclusively online.
The second-hand market’s e-commerce potential was spotted by Amazon in 2008, when it bought AbeBooks, a huge Canadian marketplace for used books. AbeBooks now exists exclusively online, simply matching buyers and sellers without managing any of the books themselves. With Amazon more recently focused on the physical bookstore business, there are encouraging signs that physical books aren’t going away.
Is this good news for Ms. Hedberg?
“Honestly, we joke all the time that we could just sell online and rent the bookstore building and earn about the same income,” she said of her business, which is located in a separate building adjacent to his house. “But the store is really special to me. It’s like having another child. Sometimes you feel like you are swallowed up by the daily stress, but in the end it is something that you are so proud of and watching him grow over all these years has been such a joy.
Maryann Calendrille, a writer who has owned Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor since 1999 with her partner, Kathryn Szoka, a photographer, would tend to agree. The shop stocks old and new books – “around 50-50,” she said – and has a small supply of collectibles and first editions, as well as leather-bound treasures. Canio’s also has an online bookstore, with “an eclectic and discriminating selection,” according to its website. But, over there, it’s really all about the allure of wandering around the store and rummaging through its shelves, a general mix of literature and non-fiction, where you’re bound to stumble upon a few valuables.
“People appreciate the personalized service and the connection with a neighborhood bookseller who understands their reading interests,” Ms. Calendrille said.