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More than a used book store, Dawn Heberg and Michael Kinsey’s Black Cat Books on Shelter Island holds everything from beach-read paperbacks to rare, collectible hardcovers, among the stacks and stacks of bound treasure organized by topic and genre. (Photo credit: David Benthal)

Photos by David Benthal

Entering Black Cat Books on Shelter Island for the first time is a thrill for a book lover. Housed in a cedar-shingled, turn-of-the-last-century home, wife-and-husband owners Dawn Heberg and Michael Kinsey make the most of every shelf, bookcase and corner of the expansive building, filling it to the brim with used books of all kinds — fiction, memoir, cooking, science fiction, romance, you name it. It’s the kind of store you see (or read about) in an old-fashioned mystery, where the main character stumbles upon some rare, tucked away, one-of-a-kind tome and embarks upon a grand adventure to collect a mystical artifact. 

But book lovers don’t have to travel far to find their treasure here, or anywhere, according to Heberg. Creating your very own book collection isn’t necessarily about heading to the ends of the earth to amass prized, expensive tomes that belong behind glass; it’s about creating a meaningful body of books that you love and look at whenever your heart desires.

Pages of pleasure

Heberg has helped many collectors over the years, and finds that they all have one thing in common: They love books.

“I always recommend to people to collect what you love,” she says. Some are drawn to beautiful bindings, for example. “As you collect those, you learn more about them. You learn what a binder’s mark is, how different binders sign them, and that would make your collection get tighter and narrower.”

If you think about it, some of us have been collecting for years and not even realizing that we’re amassing a body of someone’s work. Many people are drawn to a particular author or era or genre, buying or borrowing the books of authors they like, seeking out signed copies and even lingering over limited or first editions, all of which are great places to create a foundation for a personal collection.

For limited editions, Hedberg notes that collectors should look for the “colophon,” which is an imprint usually found in the back of a book. The colophon can help identify if a book is a limited edition and give the limitation, or number, that the book was printed. 

First editions, she says, can be tricky to suss out. “Every publisher has a different way of showing first editions,” Hedberg says. She refers collectors to Bill McBride’s book “A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions,” which offers help in identifying every major American and British publisher’s first editions from the 20th and 21st centuries. “Sometimes it’s a number line, with a 1 or a 2, but there are exceptions.”

For love or money

There are also collectors who want to invest and eventually sell, but Hedberg says this is less common.

“Book collecting as an investment can be like the stock market,” she says. “Price is dependent on scarcity. The market could be flooded with tons of copies of a certain first edition that was, at one point, very valuable.”

When it comes to contemporary authors, collecting to invest can be a real gamble, Hedberg cautions, especially if a formerly popular author falls from grace, like Bill Cosby or Woody Allen.

“But true scarce items will always hold their value,” she notes. “The great authors like Virginia Woolf, [Ernest] Hemingway will always hold value.”

Included in Black Cat Books’ massive stock are all kinds of collectible published works, from first editions to copies signed by authors to volumes with a special binding — and if it’s not there, the store can often help.

One reason Hedberg loves to collect books — though she no longer collects for herself — is simply to display them, an art she learned from BookHampton owner Jorge Castillo when she worked there back in the 1980s.

“He had a spatial, visual relationship with books and I caught on to that really well,” she says. “I love to display books. I’ll often display them on a loose theme — sometimes it’s authors or artists of a particular genre — but I try to rotate the displays for people who come in often.” 

While she is an avid reader, it’s the unique lifestyle that drew her to working as a bookseller 27 years ago; you might say it’s her calling. A Sag Harbor native, Heberg has actually been working in books her entire life, starting in high school when she worked for Castillo at BookHampton in East Hampton, which was a formative experience. 

“That was a fantastic bookstore,” she says. “After that job, even though I moved around and lived in Washington and Oregon, I always sought out jobs in bookstores because I loved the environment so much. After a few years, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Protecting for posterity

“Even people who are not huge readers … can be ‘bibliophiliacs,’ ” Heberg says. “They have a love of the book as an object.” Indeed, many old books — and new ones, too — are beautiful and can be savored even before you even get to the stories they hold — filled with illustrations and photos, or even a cover, that makes them unique. 

“Some people really covet books. They live with them. They love to be surrounded by them. They love to purchase them,” she continues. “So many of us, myself included, have stacks and stacks of books we haven’t even gotten to reading yet because we were drawn to them.”

If you are collecting, or would like to start a special personal book collection, Hedberg recommends keeping collectible books in a glass cabinet, away from direct sunlight.  

“Under glass is probably best,” says Hedberg. “It keeps the dust off the books.” Also, avoid placing your collection in the basement, which could lead to mold and mildew, or the attic, which could make them brittle and dry.

Archival plastic covers are a good way to protect older or particularly beautiful books. They can be ordered from library supply stores and can be bought in bulk. They don’t damage the book because they aren’t taped or glued to them.

The reasons for creating a book collection are as unique as the personal interests that drive them. After striking up a friendship with now-deceased illustrator Gahan Wilson, Kinsey began collecting books in which the artist’s work appeared. On the occasions that he’d stop into Kinsey’s shop, Wilson would not only sign each book, but create a unique drawing in it on the spot.

The most important thing to Hedberg, though, is simple:“You want to enjoy your collection, because what else is the point?”