It was a moment of wild inspiration and derring-do, an upcoming leap of faith, that stopped Maryann Calendrille and Kathryn Szoka in their tracks on a late night in 1999, standing across the street from Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor.
They considered the dark blue door and the threshold they had crossed so many times. The gray floorboards that creak with familiarity every few steps. The musky scent of paper that lingers in the air, and the rows upon rows of bookshelves that command attention and tower above all else.
In a matter of weeks, they would be on the other side of those doors as co-owners of the 900-square-foot village institution — made so by Canio Pavone, almost two decades earlier — carrying on its legacy from behind the desk that, together, the women have made their own.
“I’m very grateful,” said Ms. Calendrille, next to Ms. Szoka, at their home in Sag Harbor, ahead of the 20th anniversary celebration of their ownership on Saturday evening at the bookstore. “It’s been a tremendous opportunity and really a privilege to be able to move the shop forward.”
“Looking now back on it, it came at a crossroads moment for all of our lives, including Canio’s,” Ms. Szoka said. “It was something that couldn’t have been predicted, but now, looking back on it, couldn’t have happened any other way. It’s been, as we often say, like our own higher education experience.”
“It is,” Ms. Calendrille agreed.
“It’s continued education, or, as Melville would say, the ship is his university,” Ms. Szoka said. “The store, the shop, is our university, and we have grown in many ways over those 20 years.”
What started as a donation shop for used books has blossomed into a cultural icon for meetings of the minds. That started with readings hosted by Mr. Pavone — though it was a botched screening of the Japanese New Wave film “Woman in the Dunes” that first showed Ms. Calendrille how special a place this would be.
“There was some glitch at the shop with the projector, and so one of the women who had gathered there to see the film just spontaneously invited everyone to her home, which was right around the corner, to watch the film there,” she recalled.
“And I was so struck by that openness and hospitality, and welcoming in strangers. So this band of film buffs marched around the corner and enjoyed the film at her house.”
By the time Mr. Pavone decided to hold the store’s inaugural reading, with Nelson Algren, author of “The Man With the Golden Arm,” word had gotten out — and that evening it was standing room only, with hundreds flocking to the store.
Countless well-known authors and poets would follow in the coming decades, from Margaret Atwood and Frank McCourt to Studs Terkel and Kurt Vonnegut. When Julie Sheehan launched her first book of poetry, “Thaw,” at the Sag Harbor shop in 2001, she knew she was in good company.
And she described her first visit to Canio’s as walking into an intellectual’s apartment or a jewel-like case of curiosities, with a fantastic poetry section, “which is pretty rare,” she said.
“Poetry is not a get-rich-quick scheme. It was just fabulous to see,” she said. “I think what their great contribution is, is recognizing a bookstore is not just a place where you get books. That books represent a life of the mind and a life of the conscience, and all of these intangible qualities that make us human. They run their business as a community, more than as a business.”
To Philip Schultz, Canio’s acts as a sacred trust where poetry has a home, where he feels “like a poet in a way that I don’t in most times.” And he attributes that to Ms. Calendrille and Ms. Szoka.
“They’re two very special human beings. They’ve given so much to this community. I can’t even imagine — I don’t want to even try to imagine — what it would be like without them,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet said. “They’re such noble souls who, in a way, keep the flame of poetry burning unlike anyone else. In fact, there really isn’t anything else there. There’s theater and all the other arts, but they really represent poetry in a way no one else does.”
This past summer, Mr. Schultz and Ms. Sheehan participated in a group reading with poet and editor Grace Schulman, whose newest collection, “Mourning Songs,” shone a light on the dance between grief and life.
“Grace won’t be with us forever. She’s fragile, and everyone who got up and read is stamped with their own mortalities, and the audience listening — we’re all mortal,” Ms. Sheehan said. “So it was a very magical moment of recognition and empathy for the strange condition that we are in of knowing that we’re going to die, and yet insisting on living regardless.”
Canio’s insists on existing, too, despite a backdrop of online retail that inevitably impacts their business as an impossible threat to ignore.
“It’s rough,” Ms. Calendrille said.
“There’s no way you can’t feel that,” Ms. Szoka said. “And that’s part of the reason why we’re celebrating the 20 years!”
“We’ve endured all of that!” her partner said.
The store owners combat it with a certain thoughtfulness in choosing books for the community that cannot be replicated on a mass scale, and even by taking requests from their frequent visitors, including conservationist and writer Carl Safina.
“I love that I can use Canio’s as my own personal Amazon.com, sending an email to order whatever I want and getting books from them on my doorstep, or gift-wrapped books sent to friends,” he said. “The shop feels like home, and the proprietors, Kathryn and Maryann, are friends and allies.”
Ten years ago, Ms. Calendrille and Ms. Szoka founded Canio’s Cultural Café, a not-for-profit that has expanded their offering of lectures, workshops, seminars and other public forums that include a diversity of artists, writers, educators, independent scholars, students and community members who might not otherwise be heard. That vision is reflected in their curated selection from the tremendous flood of books that are published every week, they said.
“Canio’s is my favorite bookstore,” Mr. Safina said. “It’s got the popular books, and many that are far off the beaten path. For me, that’s particularly true of the Nature section. It’s a shop that’s got a mission, a respect for books, for knowledge, for style, not just a desire to sell.”
Ultimately, it was Ms. Calendrille’s and Ms. Szoka’s shared love of community that led them to take over the store, and a desire to continue the serendipity, growth and magic they felt there during their earliest days in the village — and continue to feel today.
“Our interest in the shop, in the community, in cultural preservation, in the literary heritage of the bookshop all fueled our audacity to go sit with Canio about taking over, and he couldn’t have been more encouraging and helpful and supportive,” Ms. Calendrille said.
“Together, we jump in and we’ve really enjoyed it tremendously.
“Canio’s is more than a bookstore,” Ms. Szoka added. “It’s a crossroads for the community, and we have learned so very much from the community. A big chunk of the books that we offer is because the community has opened our eyes to writers, to subjects, and the store is better for it.”
She added, “If it weren’t for the community, there wouldn’t be a Canio’s.”
The 20/20 Celebration kicks off with a Literary Costume Party on Saturday, November 2, from 5 to 7 p.m. at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor. Come dressed as your favorite writer or character. For more information, call 631-725-4926 or visit canios.wordpress.com.