What’s Black & White and read all over?

A Reno bookstore and its cat, Jake, sell previously read merchandise

A cat with a literary bent, Jake grew up at Black & White books.

A cat with a literary bent, Jake grew up at Black & White books.

Photo By David Robert

No used-books store, no matter how warm and snug it is, no matter how it brims with rare titles, no matter how many cushy reading chairs it has, is complete without the bookstore cat.

The bookstore kitty is something that book super chains will probably never adopt, even as they continue to add enticing touches of hominess to their décor, like deep armchairs in autumnal colors, hardwood reading desks and cozy in-store cafés. The bookstore kitty belongs exclusively to the old-fashioned book haunt—she belongs only in the rich, mysterious, foresty smell of old, yellowing books.

“I figured there’d be a mutiny among the customers if Jake ever disappeared,” says Roman Hruska, owner of Black & White Books. “He’s the only cat I know who gets phone calls or e-mail.”

Black & White Books is one of Reno’s largest used-books stores, with about 40,000 titles in stock and dozens of books coming in and going out its doors on a typical day. But books are only part of the draw: Parents will call up the store on weekend mornings, asking for Jacob, Black & White’s feline mascot. They want to make sure he’ll be around for the kids to play with when mom and dad come in to browse.

Jacob—Jake for short—seems to be a perfect match for the bookstore, right down to his black-and-white coloring. And he seems to know it. The 8-year-old, 17-pound kitty has been living in the bookstore since he was 6 weeks old. Perched haughtily on a colossal pile of newly arrived titles, Jacob greets customers with the calm austerity of a diplomat. But he’s not a snob—he seems perfectly content when nestled in the arms of his owners.

“It’s traditional for used-books stores to have a cat,” Hruska says. “It comes from the rodent problem.”

Hruska adds, however, that most bookstores—Black & White included—have kicked the pesky rodent dilemma. “That job has fallen by the wayside, but people still expect there to be cats in used-books stores.”

Hruska, 31, has owned Black & White Books for one year with his wife, Wendy, also 31. Hruska began working at Black & White under its former ownership in 1997, when it was located on Wells Avenue. The store moved to its current, larger location on Lakeside Drive four years ago. Hruska says that this is his first business venture, although he’s been a book connoisseur most of his life.

“That’s a disease I got from my dad,” he says, grinning. “It seems like we never leave [Black & White], but those are the joys of owning your own bookstore.”

Hruska says that while some bookstores have suffered from the online book trade boom, the only real victims are the ones who haven’t been willing to change their ways. The Internet, in fact, has helped Black & White. About 20,000 to 25,000 of Black & White’s titles—everything in stock that’s over $6—are listed on used-book Internet sites like ABE.com and BookAvenue.com.

“I don’t think we could keep the doors open without them,” he says. “My customer base is literally worldwide. All in all, I think [the Internet] has been good for the book trade.”

Hruska says that the Internet has been particularly good for the rare-book business. It’s leveled the playing field in terms of books’ prices, and it allows booksellers in smaller cities to hawk their treasures to a worldwide audience. Hruska’s biggest transaction was the sale of a travel narrative dating back to the late 18th century, which he sold online for $8,000 to a London bookseller.

Hruska’s oldest book on hand now is a sheepskin-bound biography written in an old dialect of Italian that dates back to 1544. He just purchased a circa-1700s Anglican book of prayer. He says that sometimes people will come in with “old” books they want to sell—books that were published in, say, 1970. Old for him, he says, is pre-Civil War.

He adds that, when it comes to choosing what books will go on his shelves, quality matters over quantity.

“It’s not the stuff that makes you money. It’s the stuff that makes you look good to the other book geeks.”

While the Internet may be vital to Black & White’s continued existence, there’s still something about that old-fashioned bookstore experience. There are still plenty of folks, Hruska says, who love to come in and riffle through their shelves of fiction or Nevada history, chat with the owners and, of course, cuddle with the kitty.