Bookstores Remain Main Street Staple on the South Fork

Canios Books Co-Owner Kathryn Szoka, photographed in her store. Michael Heller photography.
Canios Books Co-Owner Kathryn Szoka, photographed in her store. Michael Heller photography.
Canios Books Co-Owner Kathryn Szoka, photographed in her store. Michael Heller photography.

By Mara Certic

With the proliferation of e-readers about five years ago came a growing fear among some that the physical book might one day be permanently shelved and covered in dust. But while independent stores struggle to survive on the East End, somehow bookshops remain a main street staple.

Taylor Rose Berry, proprietor of Harbor Books, photographed in her store.
Taylor Rose Berry, proprietor of Harbor Books, photographed in her store.

For the past 35 years, Canio’s Books has presided over the south side of Sag Harbor’s Main Street. In 1999, writer Maryanne Calendrille and photographer Kathryn Szoka took over the store, and 10 years later created the not-for-profit Canio’s Cultural Café, which hosts lectures, classes and workshops.

“Canio warned us at the beginning,” Ms. Calendrille said, “’You’re not going to make a lot of money,’ he said, ‘but you’ll have a good life.’”

“You don’t have any illusions about making a big pile of money here,” she said, “you get rich in other ways. It’s been a tremendous education—we’ve met some wonderful, wonderful people.”

The financials of the book business, however, haven’t been as dire as some have forecasted.

“At the last book expo in New York in May, the numbers were coming in cautiously optimistic about new bookstores opening, independents hanging in there and I think we’ve reached a plateau with the Nook and the Kindle, so people are again realizing the value of the small, independent community bookstore,” Ms. Calendrille said.

“I see a parallel with the eat local movement,” she said, and in fact that has inspired the bookstore to begin a community-supported book program—quite like community supported agriculture, where people can open an account with the store and make purchases against that.

“It can be scary as hell,” she said, “but it’s all about resourcefulness and creativity.”

That creativity is something that comes into play with all their decisions: what to sell, what events to host, what concepts should be sponsored.

The resurrection of the “Moby Dick” marathon last year was hugely successful, and the women are planning to host an all-day “Leaves of Grass” reading this spring, around the time of Walt Whitman’s birthday. They intend to keep their calendar filled with at least one event each week, throughout the winter.

And while many events at bookstores are attended by intimate groups, there are some that still draw huge crowds. A line of people wrapped all around East Hampton Village in August 2014, when Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared at BookHampton to sign copies of her book, “Hard Choices.”

“It’s really been the center not only of the literary community, but also as the community as a whole,” said Charline Spektor, who has owned BookHampton for the past 15 years, and seen booklovers come out of the woodwork for book releases, readings and signings. “We’re very much the cornerstone of the community.”

“I don’t think the bookstore business for us has changed that much—I think the demographics have changed a little bit. But we pay close attention to who our neighbors are, and to who’s coming into the neighborhood.”

Ms. Spektor is getting ready to pass the torch and leave the bookselling business after this holiday season—but not because of business, she said. She intends to spend her time traveling the country to speak to different communities about gun control legislation, and working on her writing.

Both the East Hampton and Southampton locations, she said, would remain bookstores, but she said that she couldn’t divulge any more details.

While Ms. Spektor prepares to leave the book business after all these years, a former employee of hers prepares to celebrate the first anniversary of her new venture—Sag Harbor’s Harbor Books.

“There seems to be a trend of people talking about the dying of bookstores and books in general; in the past three years, independent books store sales have been up 9 percent each year. This season alone they’re up 26 percent. So it’s substantial,” said the owner of Harbor Books, Taylor Rose Berry, who will celebrate her first year in business on November 28.

“I’m amazed how quickly it’s gone,” she said this week.

Ms. Berry had just returned from a vacation where she did a little bit of an unofficial study, photographing everyone she saw reading actual books. “I think I only saw like two e-readers,” she said.

“I think that the e-book is as much of a threat to the real book as the escalator is to the stair,” she said.

“People really want to hold something tangible,” she said. “People want to hold the book.”

Just this summer, the book business proved its strength with the release of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman.” “We sold something like 290 copies our first week,” Ms. Berry said, “which is absolutely bonkers.”

In addition to the many books her shop sells, Ms. Berry also caters to the other needs of “book nerd” culture, she said, including candles, t-shirts, notebooks and mugs.

The young business owner is a firm believer in the mantra, that if you’re not growing, you’re dying. For that reason, she has plans to continue to expand her business, which include hosting school book fairs, getting a mobile book bus, and even perhaps one day putting a café into the shop.

“I didn’t get into this business to go out of it—I believe in books,” she said.