Forty years ago, Canio Pavone, a Babylon teacher who had been dismissed early from jury duty in Riverhead, decided to take a drive to Sag Harbor.
At the time, he was reading “Cold Hands,” Joe Pintauro’s first novel. “It was a world I never knew existed,” he said of the East End, where the book was based.
Mr. Pavone might have come east to get the lay of the land, but instead he got a bookstore when he came upon a thrift shop that was for rent on upper Main Street. It being September, and this being Sag Harbor when it was still something of a rough-and-tumble town, the landlord was eager to rent the place. They struck a deal, and Mr. Pavone, who had crates of books in storage at his Babylon home, was in business, keeping weekend hours only because he still had his teaching job.
Shortly after opening, Mr. Pavone befriended the novelist Nelson Algren, who had moved to Sag Harbor late in his life and would soon be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. When Mr. Algren agreed to do a reading in the spring of 1981, it drew a packed house and offers from many of the literati in attendance to do their own readings. Those events, which continue to this day, have done much to cement Canio’s reputation among book lovers and guarantee its success — at least by the modest standards of a used bookstore.
Fast-forward to 1999. Mr. Pavone wanted to spend a year in Italy, and the only way to do that would be if he gave up the business. Enter Maryann Calendrille, who had been teaching English at Southampton College, and Kathryn Szoka, a freelance photographer.
They were looking for a new challenge and agreed to take over the store.
With the store’s 40th anniversary coming up next month, the shop is celebrating the best way it can in the age of COVID-19 — remotely — by asking customers to share their favorite “Canio’s Moment,” whether it be a book that changed your life, an author you met at one of the store’s readings, or a friendship that began in the shop. Written or video submissions are welcome and can be sent to store’s website, canios.wordpress.com.
“Obviously, it is going to be virtual,” said Ms. Calendrille. “Anything in the store is not happening.”
So, instead, there will likely be a digital Champagne toast, a photo identification contest with gift certificates for prizes, and other activities.
“We want to spread the celebration throughout the year,” said Ms. Szoka, who added the owners are looking toward a bright future.
They both hope the in-person gatherings can continue next year when the shop hosts its biennial marathon readings of Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.”
Although Ms. Calendrille jokes she and Ms. Szoka bought the business only because there was a free parking spot out in front on the day she stopped in to inquire about it, there is obviously more to the story. “We both had been customers and loved the place,” she said.
Heartbroken over the prospect of the rickety old shop pile high with books closing, she added the decision to buy the business was as much about “cultural preservation” as it was about making a living.
But they also learned a few things along the way. “We have had to innovate to keep going,” said Ms. Szoka. “We have had to come up with a number of things to help us maintain a brick-and-mortar bookstore on Main Street.”
Among those are Canio’s Cultural Café, a not-for-profit spinoff through which they offer their educational programming and which can obtain grants to underwrite those programs and solicit private donations.
About five years ago, the shop launched Community Supported Books, which borrows from the Community Supported Agriculture model in which subscribers are asked “to share in sustaining food for thought” by making regular purchases. “During COVID, so many people joined our CSB program as a way of helping us through the difficult shutdown period,” Ms. Szoka said.
And another, which Ms. Szoka said has been a lifesaver in the age of Amazon, is an online book selling service run that was launched during the pandemic on bookstore.org that gives independent shops a chance to compete. “People have decided they don’t want to support Amazon,” she said.
The support is gratifying, she added. “It’s made us understand that our effort to be a community place has come back around. People are having this moment of recognition — ‘we want to support this small bookstore.’ We’re feeling the love.”