By Emily J. Weitz; Photography by Christian McLean
Left: Canio’s owner Maryann Calendrille at last week’s Cash Mob supporting the long time bookstore and gathering place on Sag Harbor’s Main Street.
At Canio’s Books last Saturday, the narrow passageways between shelves were even more crowded than usual. Shoulder to shoulder people stood, ready to flood the store with a holiday boost. A cash mob is a concept that has spread throughout the country: community members rally together to support a local business that could use it. Through social media and word of mouth, people spread the word about the time and place of the mob, and then they descend, cash in hand, committed to spending a certain amount (in this case $20) before they leave the store.
Canio’s was selected as the beneficiary of last Saturday’s cash mob because of its importance to the culture of the town. Since its founding in 1980 by Canio Provone, Canio’s has served as a cultural hub as well as an independent book seller.
“When Canio’s first opened it was a different time in Sag Harbor,” said Kathryn Szoka, co-owner of the store. “There were some oases for literature and art but not a great many, and Canio’s became a meeting place for the creative arts.”
Szoka and her partner, Maryann Calendrille, vowed to continue that legacy when they took over the business they loved in 1999. One clear example is their establishment of the Cultural Café a few years ago. The not-for-profit is devoted to bringing educational and cultural offerings to the public.
“We see Canio’s as a community center for creativity and the arts,” Szoka said.
They’ve conducted several six-week series on the environment, where a dozen or so participants gather together in the cozy shop to discuss essays and writings on specific subjects. They use a curriculum designed by Northwest Earth Institute, including a workbook and syllabus. Then the participants take turns leading the sessions.
“The idea is that engagement is a great way to learn,” explains Szoka. “It creates great ownership of the material on everyone’s part.”
Besides the nature series, other offerings from the Cultural Café have included poetry workshops with Mark Doty or essay workshops with David Buchier.
“We’ll have a great Dante workshop in January on the Divine Comedy,” Szoka added, “and Canio is coming out of retirement to teach that. It’s already sold out.”
Szoka promised there would be another later café offering in the New Year. She believes that the Cultural Café further solidifies Canio’s place in the community.
That was the overwhelming sentiment expressed by the throngs at the cash mob on Saturday, as well.
Nick Gazzolo, a North Haven resident and one of the organizers of Saturday’s cash mob, wanted to support Canio’s because of the importance the independent bookseller has to the community.
(Right) Eric Cohen, Hillary Loomis and April Gornik, organizers and participants in last weekend’s Cash Mob at Canio’s in Sag Harbor.
“This is what makes Sag Harbor a village,” said Gazzolo as he sipped a sparkling apple cider and observed the masses. “Local and independent book sellers. We’ve lost so many bookstores in Sag Harbor—one by one. So a group of friends got together and we said, ‘Let’s do something about it.’”
April Gornik, an active member of Save Sag Harbor and avid Canio’s supporter, was delighted at the turnout.
“I’m here because I love an intelligently run book store,” she said. “Your browsing is not wasted.”
“It’s curated,” he said of the collection at Canio’s. “And you therefore have that relationship with a trusted curator. There’s no other book store like this one.”
But even more than the importance of the thoughtful items in the store, Gornik believes that Canio’s is a symbol of community.
“Everybody needs community,” she said, gazing out at the sea of browsers. “Canio’s stands for community. The workshops and events are so cool. I’ve loved this place since I first walked in.”
Gazzolo believes what Canio’s contributes to the sense of community is a needed gathering place.
“It’s the third place,” he said. “It’s the place you can go that isn’t work and isn’t home. You can step out of those roles here.”
In a digital age, when more and more books are being downloaded and read on Kindles and iPads, the practicality of a brick-and-mortar bookstore is as in jeopardy as the practicality of the books themselves. But for a romantic like Gornik, there’s no comparison.
“There’s nothing like the physical satisfaction of a book,” she said.
Hilary Loomis, another one of the organizers of the cash mob event, is married to a longtime editor from Random House, and she spoke of his nostalgia for an era that is slipping away.
“We all know that books and book stores are not faring well in this day and age,” she said.
She believes that Canio’s keeps books alive not just through the sale of the physical objects, but also through the culture surrounding books.
“Think of all the writers and editors in this town,” Loomis said. “Canio’s is a cultural center as well as a book store. Think of the cultural events and readings.”
It’s that cultural outlet that sets Sag Harbor apart, and continues to inspire new generations of creativity.
“What kind of world would it be if everything was downloaded?” asked Gazzolo. “”Where would we discover things? Where would we bump into each other?”
For Szoka and Calendrille, the day felt like a swell of support from the community to which they’ve devoted themselves.
“We were thrilled by the cash mob and grateful for our friends who put it together,” said Szoka. “I think what a lot of people like about Canio’s is the intimate atmosphere, and that all books are hand selected. Every book counts and has a story and allows for the opening of an imagination. It takes a village to make something like Canio’s thrive and we are grateful that the effort is there in our community. The cash mob felt like a warm hug.”