Mac’s Backs Books on Coventry, in Cleveland, Oh
Time for a big, warm welcome to our fall partner bookstore, Mac’s Backs Books on Coventry in Cleveland, Ohio! Book Post always links to independent booksellers and we welcome the opportunity this gives to delve into and celebrate local reading cultures.
In which vein—we’re heading out to Cleveland for the Heartland Fall Forum booksellers’ gathering in October, where we’re sharing a table with the great Belt Publishing, named for the Rust one (subscribe to founding director Anne Trubek’s newsletter “Notes from a Small Publisher,” for an excellent insider’s look into the world of small—and all—publishing), and we’ll be participating in a publishing panel and small press book fair at Mac’s Backs afterwards—thank you hosts!
Mac’s Backs on Coventry was founded in 1982 when Chagrin Falls bookseller Jim McSherry invited founder Suzanne DeGaetano, a friend and employee recently out of college, to help him open a bookstore in an old theater in what the Cleveland Plain Dealer called, on the occasion of the store’s fortieth anniversary, “the coolest street in Cleveland.” (The neighboring shop Passport to Peru held tarot readings for three hours at the anniversary street party; “very Coventry,” remarked an interviewer.) Suzanne, who was living in the neighborhood at the time and had grown up reading on the radiator behind the sofa in her family’s living room, thought, “I’ll do this for a couple of years.”
The mood had been set by the arrival down the street of the still-running Record Revolution in 1968 (“We sold vinyl before it was cool again,” says the current owner, who grew up around the corner) and Cleveland’s oldest (circa 1972) vegetarian cafe, Tommy’s, next door to Mac’s Backs current location, where Suzanne, who also held down a job as a bartender at the nearby “Barking Spider Tavern” for nearly its thirty-year run, says she ate most of her meals in the early days.
Suzanne credits the vitality of the street life of Coventry for the longevity and prosperity of Mac’s Backs. Coventry is a diverse neighborhood, with students from Case Western Reserve and other universities mixing with loyal residents and travelers from small towns around coming in for a bit of metropolitan life. “When there’s a lively street culture,” she says, “people can come out and talk, see neighbors, meet people.” She joined with local Harvey Pekar’s widow to create a park in Coventry honoring the comic pioneer, who was a passionate Cleveland reader and bookstore habitué, and held a reunion of sorts that brought out the local high school classmates of comic underground legend Dave Sheridan when Mark Burstien made a book cataloguing his work. She collaborated in the earliest days of the store with local poet Mark Hopkins on a monthly poetry reading, which is still going strong and, Suzanne says, sets the tone for the store. Cleveland is known for its poets, she says, and bringing in poets and poetry every month is “elevating, it’s spiritual, all the things that good writing and good literature can bring to your soul.”
Like our departing summer partner, the Raven in Lawrence, Kansas (see our July bookstore announcement), Mac’s Backs saw the threat of the big box bookstores come and go. In Suzanne’s telling, when Borders and Barnes and Noble and Joseph Beth folded up their tents, they left a hungry readership eager to embrace what more intimate regional booksellers have to offer. She sees these days as witnessing a revival of “Main Street” and a fresh wave of enthusiasm for in-person book-buying:
People love to browse stores, they just want to go into these individual environments, because every store is tailored to their community and they’re all different from each other … Another thing too is the millennium generation are big readers (of course we are seeing the readers), they are very jazzed about books. All ages of people who use social media will share information all the time about books and reading, a lot of information about books gets exchanged that way. People will see a post on Instagram about a book, they’ll get excited about it, come looking for it, so I think all that just feeds into a book culture that’s really more exciting than ever.
Mac’s Backs, though its presence can be found all over Cleveland and surrounds, offering books at events and community gatherings, opens into its physical space from a modest little door unfolding into a three-story adventure of books within. Says one reader, “it’s one of those labyrinthine places, where just when you thought you’d seen every section you find a new door or spiral staircase and it takes you to a whole new realm, with books stacked everywhere.” Its celebrated science fiction section occupies a balcony. Suzanne became sheepish when she received a Cleveland Arts Prize last fall, saying it’s not really about her, it’s about the customers and the books and the staff, but then she acknowledged the role that she plays there: “I’m a connector, it’s my favorite thing to do.” When customers suggest that she build on her success and expand or diversify she says:
I’m not really an executive, I’m a shopkeeper. I like my customers, I like to know my customers. That’s really what a bookstore is, a symbiotic relationship between the customers, the books, and the staff … I am a people-person, so I really like the encounters with customers, and then having the additional bonus of being able to talk about books, and sell books, I guess was ideal for me because I’m still here after all these years!
To which we say, hear hear!
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