Thomas Cary: The eccentric collector at the center of the fashion world

WEEKEND headed to New York to catch up with Thomas Cary, a quirky rare book collector, on the eve of his release of the Skull & Bones yearbook from 1948. “You can probably tell — white is my least favorite color,” Cary said, beckoning me into his apartment-turned-showroom. Wearing yellow trousers, a powder blue polo and embroidered slippers, Cary provides a glimpse into another era. His fortune of preppy memorabilia — from polo mallets to hand-painted martini shakers and every rare book in between — sits on the Upper East Side, waiting to filter into the storefronts of Kate Spade, Tommy Hilfiger or Ralph Lauren’s Rhinelander mansion.

Q. Where are you from? Tell me about your childhood.

A. I’m from East Aurora — a small town outside of Buffalo, N.Y. I grew up in an art appreciatory family. I really admired my own ancestral roots — that’s where my collection passion derives from. My maternal grandfather, Major Jay Coogan, was quite the anglophile and loved all things polo and equestrian. He owned the Coogan Polo Grounds in the Bronx, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. My father was somewhat of an art connoisseur and had a great collection.

Q. So collecting is in your blood.

A. Absolutely. As a young boy, I immediately took to collecting, and began with things like coins and postage stamps. By seventh and eighth grade, I was very passionate about the beauty of objects and always strived to acquire the best condition of any item.

Q. Did you have any particular inspirations?

A. My father played polo and wintered in Palm Beach, Fla. I love palms and that whole tropical lifestyle. I acquired an interest in colorful accoutrement. I was inspired by the James Bond era and Ian Fleming’s novels. I actually started bringing an attaché case to middle school.

Q. So you were a precocious youth…

A. Oh yes. In the summer of ninth grade, I did a bike tour of England and Scotland. Our group arrived in London and most everyone went to the usual spots, like Madame Tussauds. I struck out on my own and found my way to the Royal Ascot Racecourse — at age 15!

Suffice it to say, I was very precocious.

I would play hookie from high school all the time. I would board a plane and fly out to New York. I was always comfortable being independent and doing my own thing. My family had an account at Brooks Brothers, and I could charge to it, carte blance. It was great fun.

My best friends were my par-ents’ friends. They owned a beautiful equestrian farm estate in New Jersey and would host extravagant cocktail parties. I loved being the butler and talking to all of the guests. At age 16, I really fancied myself a dandy.

Q. And that has carried into your profession today.

A. Yes. I’m very visually oriented. I can block out anything else — I have a laser eye for shopping. I can scan titles on a row of book spines from afar and tell which ones are going to be valuable.

Q. So what is the best purchase you have ever made?

A. I’d have to say it was a limited edition of Addison Mizner’s famous tome on Florida Architecture. He was an architect for the wealthy, creating resorts — estates, really — the forerunner of the“McMansion.” I got the book from a dealer in Seattle and sold it to a New York billionaire for nine times the price, making over $16,000.

But I also have prized possessions that I paid $5 for, that I love waking up and seeing each morning. Value doesn’t equate to price, for me.

Q. And your biggest mistake?

A.[Laughing] You won’t let me off the hook, will you? My biggest downfall is a contagious acquisitional sense of urgency. I love to buy. But thankfully I’ve been able to turn a hoarding condition into a lucrative business. I always keep in mind that ultimately I might keep whatever I buy, so I have to like it. Stores are very interested in what I have to sell.

Q. It seems you have an uncanny sense of what stores will want.

A. My background is in retail — I used to be a buyer for several different stores and developed a “retail eye.” I currently own about 15,000 books. I collect about 100 different categories of items and rare books are only one. But mind you, that includes swizzle sticks.

Q. You have a unique job. How did you carve out your niche in New York?

A. What makes my business a success is my passion. I believe in what I’ve acquired; I believe it has a proper home. And I’m not shy about approaching people. I didn’t get to where I am today by tiptoeing around. I put myself out there and built a brand name: My eccentricity, colorful attire — it brings in customers.

I sort of created the concept of vintage books in retail stores. One of my first accounts was Polo Ralph Lauren, when they were building a flagship store many years ago. But I’ll sell to any venue — vintage cocktail books to high-class bars, vintage sporting books to country clubs and golf resorts. It really runs the gamut.

The beauty of my operation is that I have no staff overhead and no brick and mortar establishment. It all comes down to the thrill of the hunt. I’m also able to go into a store cold turkey. Most dealers want cash up front, but I just want my product somewhere on Madison Avenue, rather than sitting in my warehouse.

Q. Tell me more about some of your clients.

A. My first, and one of my biggest clients, is Kate Spade. I was in a rare books shop and saw bags and bags of books that someone had set aside to buy. I looked at the earmark and it said “Kate Spade.” I made a bunch of phone calls and tracked down their buyer, and the business expanded from there. In 2008 alone, Kate Spade purchased over $200,000 in rare books from me for prop art, dust jackets and other visuals.

Potterton Books in England is another big client. They realized that I have a good eye and we made a consignment agreement. It’s been great because they show in several high-end book fairs around the world.

I also have seasonal private accounts in Nantucket and Palm Beach, Florida. For example, I sold some Cecil Beaton artwork to Stephanie Seymour, who is a Victoria’s Secret supermodel. Her husband, Peter Brant, is a wealthy Andy Warhol collector. Tommy Hilfiger also bought from me for his personal collection.

Q. What did he buy?

A. A beautiful Hermes trade catalogue from the 1920s. He loved the look of it. Paid more than $2,000 for it.

Q. Do you have any other interesting stories about your clients?

A. Oh sure. Once I got a phone call from the Global Director of Polo. He said, “Bring me $70,000 of rare books to the Rhinelander Mansion by tomorrow.” Needless to say, I assembled it pretty quickly.

Q. It seems like this business has turned out quite well for you.

A. It really has. But collecting comes with a price. I’ve had to decide where my money goes. I can choose between a vacation and a $2,000 book, and I always sacrifice the vacation. It’s the lifestyle of an acquisitor — time will tell if I’ve made the right decision.

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