When they became the new owners of Canio’s Books in 1999, Kathryn Szoka and Maryann Calendrille didn’t just buy a business; they bought into a community.
It was the community that the bookstore’s founder, Canio Pavone, was drawn to explore after he read the work of Joe Pintauro, the late playwright, poet, former priest, and novelist who called Sag Harbor home. It’s a responsive community that has since gathered at Canio’s Books on all sorts of emotional occasions, and an intellectual community that supported, and continues to support, multiple bookstores.
“It’s a laboratory of human nature, in a way,” Ms. Szoka said of Canio’s Books. “A big aspect of what I’ve learned here is about humanity, about people, about the need for people to be in company and to have the ability to share and talk with other people.”
With this year the 20th anniversary of their arrival as the bookstore’s new owners, and next year the 40th anniversary of the founding of the bookstore itself, Ms. Szoka and Ms. Calendrille paused recently to reflect on their experiences.
“There will always be bookstores, but there will be fewer of them and everyone has to specialize,” Ms. Calendrille said. “The broad-based, generalized bookstore is really hard to sustain. But a small shop with a specialty that continues to respond to customer interest and current events — people want to have such a place in their community. Writers have told us they wouldn’t move to Sag Harbor if there weren’t a good bookshop in the village.”
At Canio’s, the booksellers knew Simon Van Booy and Colson Whitehead when both were just starting out. They have a scrapbook filled with pictures of people who have stopped by — Margaret Atwood, Studs Terkel, Salman Rushdie, Kurt Vonnegut, and dozens of others among the literary elite.
“We have met an enormous number of people over the years that I would never have dreamed of encountering, some known and some unknown, who have opened up my understanding of literature and the world in an enriching way,” Ms. Szoka said.
Around the turn of the century, when Sag Harbor was a booming industrial town, the Canio’s space on Main Street was a dry goods store. About four years ago, the building’s owner put the property up for sale, prompting the bookstore proprietors to contact local media to make reassurances that they weren’t going anywhere. The building, which also houses three apartments, is no longer on the market.
In 1999, with Mr. Pavone about to close the bookstore, the poet Kathryn Levy told The Star, “The distinctiveness of the Sag Harbor community, it seems to me, is bound up with places like Canio’s that are disappearing all too rapidly. I hope we all don’t wait until it disappears before we realize how important it was to us.”
Ms. Szoka said they were attracted to the bookstore because it resonated with them personally.
“In these 900 square feet or so, [Canio’s] really encompassed a world of intersectional offerings,” she said. “I am a photographer, I love literature, I am a social justice advocate, a community-minded person and environmental advocate. All of those things I am able to foster and grow. It’s ‘Canio’s University.’ Like Melville said — the ship is his university.”
Ms. Calendrille and Ms. Szoka have fulfilled a number of unusual requests over the years, including surreptitiously delivering a complete copy of the Oxford English Dictionary — all 20-something volumes of it — to a customer’s home as a birthday surprise.
To sustain their business, Ms. Calendrille and Ms. Szoka have had to get creative. They both teach workshops in the space, for instance, with Ms. Calendrille focusing on writing and Ms. Szoka on photography. The bookstore often transforms into an art gallery. And they launched a “community supported books” subscription service that works kind of like a community-supported agriculture program.
They also established a nonprofit organization, Canio’s Cultural Cafe, in 2009, offering a place for voices “who might not otherwise be heard” to share their stories.
In celebration of what they are calling their “20/20” milestone, Ms. Calendrille and Ms. Szoka have planned a slate of events. First up is a literary Halloween costume party from 5 to 7 p.m. on Nov. 2, complete with prizes and refreshments. In early December, to coincide with Emily Dickinson’s birthday, there will be a four-hour Essential Emily poetry marathon. In late December, there will be a jazz concert, and in the spring, for the annual marathon (“Moby-Dick” is every other year), Canio’s will lead a community reading of “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison.
From her experiences owning a bookstore, Ms. Calendrille said she has learned that “human nature is a wild and strange and endlessly fascinating subject.”
“And unpredictable,” Ms. Szoka added.
“It’s about promoting the best of our human creative potential,” Ms. Calendrille continued. “For me there is an absolute pleasure of connecting a customer who’s asking for something good to read with just the right book. It’s this sort of serendipitous, intuitive dance you do with a person to try and understand what they’re interested in, and what we have here that might be appealing. You make a connection like that that is absolutely gratifying. Being able to do that is great — it feels like a tremendous privilege, and not even work. It’s just fun.”