We confess that we got a bit giggly in this apartment ... a sense of the absurd quickly took over as we sidled in and then realized that the tiny, crammed spaces just couldn’t accommodate us with our handbags: we had to leave them outside the front door. Actually, it couldn’t really accommodate us without our handbags and, as we bumped and shuffled around we kept knocking things over and surreptitiously replacing them, hence the schoolgirl giggling which only intensified when we realized there was, literally, no place to sit and that, book collector and “biblio-decorator” Thomas Cary did not intend to sit anyway, since he never does – or so he said, and there’s no reason to believe otherwise. Did our clumsy presence have him flustered? We think so. We did persuade him to perch on the edge of the (tiny) bed for a bit, but it didn’t last and most of the interview was conducted with him standing up, surrounded by the extraordinary array of precisely and intricately arranged objets that Thomas refers to as “product." Although he lives with it, it’s all for sale to the right buyer (click to view a small selection of product or contact email@example.com). His main business is dealing in rare and vintage books but he also deals in a certain kind of preppy, glamorous memorabilia as atmosphere-creating props to various retail spaces—so now you know where all those old polo mallets and cocktail glasses in Ralph Lauren come from.
Why are you so stressed?
Well I run my business without any assistants, because I’m somewhat of a control freak ...
Oh! Gosh what a surprise ...
Right! Well, I’m not sure I want to delegate. A lot of this requires precision. I’ve been doing this for a long time. My background is in specialty retail menswear, both as a buyer and in selling. I’ve branched out and this now is my full time business.
Th entrance gallery to Thomas's apartment and showroom. A Cecil Beaton watercolor portrait of a Palm Beach socialite sits on the floor.
'At Your Service' by Ludwig Bemelmans and sets of vintage gentleman’s cufflinks.
Set of miniature lead American polo players on ponies, ca. 1940.
Thomas Cary’s den of iniquity, aka his gaming room.
Vintage backgammon board, rare cocktail recipe books from the 1930s, a straw boater, and a Stork Club ashtray.
English car mascot, Paul Brown polo lamp, and sterling mint julep cups.
Britains' lead jockeys up on racehorses, miniature palm trees, and decoupage lamps.
Tiffany blue parrot decoupage lamp, leather dice cup, and a wooden racehorse board game.
Vintage patch tartan and madras blazers and a J. Chipp linen, trout-fly club jacket.
Turnbull & Asser flasher on Jermyn St. originally from the A. Hammer Galleries and a number ‘8’ steeplechaser saddling-up for The Maryland Hunt Cup, ca. 1940s by Fairfield Coogan (Thomas’ octogenarian uncle who is still actively painting in York Harbor, Me.)
A pair of puppeteer's palm tree door panels and racehorse winners' enclosure photo.
Objets and rare books. I have 15,000 rare books ... I have four warehouses across the 59th Street Bridge. I have quite a global following for my books and I sell to museums. I sold a Diana Vreeland book that was never intended for distribution from an exhibition in Kyoto and I sold it to the Beinecke Library at Yale University where they were developing a fashion archive.
How do you know where anything is in here?
Oh I do. I have a visual memory basically. This is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
So tell us how you live in this space.
Very carefully. I don’t cook – I just have nibbles and cocktails and then I’ll go to Swifty’s where I have a table. I don’t do much for breakfast – I’m more of a nocturnal person.
Cecil Beaton watercolor of a West End stage set, rare club books, and a framed linen 'Calorie' napkin.
Vintage Lilly 'P' cocktail blazer and a J. Chipp custom shantung silk blazer with an Hermès equestrian silk lining!
Miniature polo mallets, Fornasetti silk swatches, and a Gucci parasol umbrella, ca 1960s.
Hermès bespoke stationary with a custom postage stamp.
Stack of ubiquitous Hermès tie boxes and a set of Fab-Four Beatles 'Yellow Submarine' buttons.
Trio of Lilly 'P' blazers and rare society books from the D.D. Ryan Estate.
Stacks of rare books awaiting retail deployment.
‘Chemin de fer’ gaming case acquired from The Baron De Rede Sotheby's Paris auction in 2003 together with a Trader Vic's Tiki lamp. Propped atop the billiard green velvet armchair is a custom needlepoint pillow of an obedient terrier dutifully following his top-hatted master.
A courtyard view of The Cary Collection showroom and Thomas’s living quarters.
Butler wooden tray stand with croquet ball and a stack of James Bond 007 UK paperbacks.
How do you get dressed?
I don’t know ... I mean ...
Where do you keep your socks and your underwear?
Oh ... well anyway – we don’t need to hear about that.
Oh, but we do!
Who needs to know?
Where do you sit, on the rare occasion that you do sit that is?
Well, I’ll sit in this director’s chair and then I’ll conduct my business on my iPad.
More views of Thomas’s ‘living room.'
Concubine resin lamp with a parasol lamp flanked by pair of faux topiary trees.
A pair of Cecil Beaton theatrical watercolors. ‘The 2nd Mrs Tanqueray and The Blue Boy.’
Southern exposure of a mirrored picture wall.
Do you read in bed?
When I have a chance to read. I don’t read too much.
Oh no! Well ... anyway ...
What do you watch on TV?
I love some of those collectors shows. There’s one called Pawn Stars ... I think that’s great fun because they restore product and I have that in common with them. I can find a diamond in the rough and dress it up and put it in a smart location.
Do you ever get the idea that the world is full of objects and they’re all in some grand rotation plan?
Well mine are.
Butler's pantry replete with El Morocco black and white zebra panel sheets and Spanish tile flooring.
Veuve Clicquot champagne bottle 'lamp' and cocktail party accoutrements.
Vintage brass bar cart with cocktail shakers and custom 'event' barware.
Shelving with vintage sporting objects and a Palm Beach brass 'starfish.'
Estate pantry tiles with hand-painted racehorses. Yachting signal flag barware and '21' Club jockey paperweight.
Racing owners' silks custom old-fashioned barware including Paul Mellon's Rokeby Stables. Swizzle sticks, plastic bakelite cocktail monkeys, and pink flamingos galore.
Are you being served? vintage promo Tanqueray 'butler' stand.
Hand-painted polo scene pitcher ca. 1940s, sterling shakers and a palm frond lamp.
Bachelor cabinet filled with vintage yachting, '21' Club and polo player highball barware.
What lies behind the collecting impulse?
Fortunately I have a good marketing eye. If [all this] were just for myself, it would be a bit brash and hoardish. I’ve made this kind of product, dare I say it, sexy. I’m sort of a biblio-decorator so to speak.
I always find that concept of decorating with books a bit annoying. Books are there to be read.
Well they are but sadly books are also objets ... so it’s good for me.
And do you think that’s all they’ll ever be from here onwards?
No because these books will never be ‘Kindle-ized’. It’s about the visual not just the content text.
Hallway to showroom with Buckingham horse guards military uniform on mannequin.
Hallway leading to Thomas's bedroom.
1949 Skull and Bones yearbook featuring George Herbert Walker Bush (on left).
A look around the bathroom.
What do you think of the Kindle?
I’m not concerning myself with that because I’ll be long gone by the time they Kindle-ize these type of books.
“Kindle-ize” – I didn’t realize it was a verb.
I guess I’ve created it [Laughs]. But seriously many of my clients have fabulous residences and multiple properties and they’ve got huge interiors that need filling with product, so they’re not going to have just a Kindle on a shelf.
This is a lot of work that you do.
And it’s a lot of dollars too. I’ve forsaken a lot. I could have a few multiple properties myself for what I’ve invested in books.
Why do you like being surrounded by so many objects?
I don’t know ... why not? I love objects. And if you don’t have children ... after you leave I’ve got a client taking a ton of product out of here.
More fun & foppish accoutrements from a bygone era. Thomas has painstakingly assembled an assortment that now includes a global repository of 15k+ rare books in glam categories such as society, etiquette, design, cookery, sporting, cocktailiana, gardening, & architecture.
Housed within Thomas's 900 sq ft colourful showroom is a retro assortment of society vestiges such as art deco cocktail shakers, Gucci & Hermes '60's tabletop accessories, nightclub accoutrements from The Stork Club, El Morocco, & The '21' Club.
You seem to have a special fondness for James Bond.
As most men do ...
Okay, I want to know how you grew up?
I grew up in East Aurora, New York. We had a 100-acre horse farm and my father was a seven-goal polo player. He was class of ’39 at Harvard. I have three older brothers, so it was a great place to raise sons.
Are you a rider?
I’m not a rider but I collect a lot of equestriana. I think once I was on a horse on our farm and it started charging into the apple groves ... that was it. I love horse racing. I went to the last race Secretariat ever ran at Woodbine Racecourse and I remember as a precocious 15-year-old going up to [the owner] Mrs. Penny Chenery and saying, “Why aren’t your children here to see your great horse in it’s last race?” and she said, “They’re in school. Shouldn’t you be?”
Who did the dusting at home?
Well, back then you could get great help.
Who does the dusting in here?
Well, I do actually ... it’s only this room that gets a little bit dusty.
• Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge
• Photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch