Dawn Hedberg started working in bookstores when she was 16.
She started out at Book Hampton in East Hampton when she was in high school. Then she went to the West Coast where she worked at a used bookstore in Seattle. She was one of only about three employees, which allowed her to get a real hands-on feel for its operation.
“That just made me realize it was a lifestyle that I really wanted,” Hedberg said. “To me, it seemed like a whole big loophole. I thought, what am I going to do? I’m not a corporate type, you can’t really make a living as a writer or an artist, so what’s the loophole there? And that was it for me.”
She opened Black Cat Books on Shelter Island in 1996, a used bookstore that now consists of over 20,000 used books.
Hedberg doesn’t spend much time in the store itself. She spends her time buying books to add to the store – which, in itself could be a full-time job.
“Maybe a couple of days of the week I’m in the store, pricing, doing displays, things like that, but for the most part, I’m out buying all the time,” she said. “So I run a lot of ads, and people call me to come and look at libraries to maybe purchase, and I usually pick out what I’m interested in. Sometimes I buy whole libraries, sometimes whole storage lockers, it really depends.”
Hunting for books is her favorite part of the job. Recently, she found seventh edition Shakespeare books bound in leather.
“I think there’s just a couple thousand copies out there,” she said. “So finding something like that, you’re just like wow, and after all these years this is the first time I’ve ever seen one in person.”
Her favorite types of books though, to pass through her store, are association copies – books that belonged to someone famous or notable and are often scribed to them by the author.
At the time of the interview, the store had one of the books from H.P. Lovecraft’s personal library with his bookplate in it, inscribed to him by the author – someone he was actually friends with.
Another collection, from a few years ago, were mountaineering books from the 1910s that belonged to an aspiring mountaineer hoping to climb Mount Everest. The books included notations that listed what he planned on bringing and supplies he needed to buy. The original owner ended up dying climbing a mountain, according to Hedberg, although not Everest.
“That’s why I love used books,” Hedberg said. “That’s why having a new bookstore – I’ve worked in new bookstores – having a new bookstore just really doesn’t have that kind of appeal to me because it’s just the same old stuff, the same stuff you would see everywhere. I really like finding the things that are uncommon, those things with a story.”