In this interview with Suzanne DeGaetano, the owner of Mac's Backs Books on Coventry, she discusses how Coventry has changed around her. She describes her personal journey and how she ended up co-owning a bookstore. She then describes her experiences as an owner and shopkeeper. She also discusses how embracing the neighborhood has been and that is the reason why they have remained even though many other bookstores have closed down.
DeGaetano, Suzanne (interviewee)
Rotman, Michael (interviewer)
"Suzanne DeGaetano Interview, 18 August 2012" (2012). Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection. Interview 911082.
Michael Rotman [00:00:00] Okay. Awesome. Okay, so it is August 18th, 2012, we're in the basement of Mac's Backs. And I am Michael Rotman and can you introduce yourself, please?
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:00:11] My name is Suzanne DeGaetano.
Michael Rotman [00:00:12] OK, excellent. And when and where were you born?
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:00:17] I was born in Cleveland in 1956.
Michael Rotman [00:00:20] So... I'm sorry.
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:00:22] Well, let's see, I was a third child and at the time my parents were living on Shale Avenue and the hospital where I was born was right down the street. It was St. Luke's Hospital.
Michael Rotman [00:00:34] Okay. Did you grow up in the city of Cleveland?
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:00:36] Well, then when I was two, my parents moved to Cleveland Heights. My grandparents had built a home on Lee Road, which is now where the diners are on Lee Road. There was a couple of houses there and a Quonset hut, and so that's essentially where I grew up. We eventually moved to South Euclid and I, when I was a teenager.
Michael Rotman [00:00:59] So what are your earliest memories of the Coventry neighborhood?
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:01:03] Well, so even though I grew up in Cleveland Heights, well, we came to the Coventry Library. That was our library for a while, and then the main library on Lee Road was built. So that was a lot closer to our house. And I could walk there from my house so when the main library was built to start to go there. So my earliest memories of Coventry was going to the Coventry Library. And then afterwards I really came down here a lot when I was a teenager. So the drinking age when I was young was 18. So
Michael Rotman [00:01:45] I'm sorry. What year? About what year was this?
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:01:47] Okay, so in 1975 is when I graduated from high school.
Michael Rotman [00:01:51] Okay.
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:01:51] And it's also the year that I... In 1974 I turned 18. So, everybody, our big hangout was the Saloon, which is was the corner of Coventry and Mayfield. And so all of us teenagers would come down and that was like the huge hangout. And I mean, we would be, you know, stuffed in that bar and outside on the corner of Coventry and Mayfield. And so it was consequently, I came to have a real affection for the neighborhood and I would come down and shop in the stores. I remember High Tide Rock Bottom, which is a gift store that was here for probably 25 or 30 years, and their, their original location was down on that north end of Coventry. And I remember going in there like buying a bracelet for my mom for her birthday and then High Tide eventually moved to a bigger spot. But so so my earliest memories was of the library and then some very strong memories of being having a lot of fun at the saloon.
Michael Rotman [00:02:49] Was that saloon, was that. I always hear that it was, there was, there was the rival that was like the biker bar. And then you Irv's across the street. Is that more legend or is that?
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:02:57] Well, that was probably maybe that happened a little bit earlier. There was the saloon in the mid '70s was basically, I think, just kind of a hangout there was it later evolved into a place where there was music. But in those days it was smaller. So they didn't have bands. It became a place where a lot of great bands played. So in the mid '70s, Irv's was a deli open all night. But I don't remember Irv's as much as I remember a place right across the street where Record Revolution is now. That was a small convenience store.
Michael Rotman [00:03:38] Oh, okay. What would you guys do there? Just, was it like a soda?
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:03:40] Buy cigarettes.
Michael Rotman [00:03:44] Got you. Makes sense. So there were a lot of kids hanging out on the street around there.
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:03:46] Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I don't want to make it sound like we were a bunch of drinkers, you know.
Michael Rotman [00:03:50] Got you.
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:03:50] But but that was the you know, that, in fact, when I turned 18, the big thing was to go to the Saloon. And so my dad, my parents were, you know, understandably a little bit skeptical about this arrangement. And so my dad said he wanted to come with me on on that night. So I, you know, I was, you know, a little bit apprehensive about that. But I told all my friends at school that, you know, my dad was coming. So we picked up my, you know, very good friend. And I remember because she gave me my birthday present in the car driving down, which was the Beatle's White Album. And we came down and my dad, I guess he just at the last minute decided he wasn't gonna follow through. He just dropped us off and allowed me my freedom. So but it was funny because I had a I had a pretty strict curfew. And but that was you know, that was where we came to socialize was was down here on Coventry.
Michael Rotman [00:04:48] Cool. And just to go back real quick, is there anything you remember about the Cedar-Lee neighborhood growing up, places you would go to?
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:04:54] Oh, yeah. Oh, absolutely. Because we lived right down the street, so we went to the theater all the time. And what and then there was the Woolworth's was there, the five and dime was there. So, you know, we'd always go in there. And I still remember the wood floors and how they sort of sagged in the middle and the aisles. And we would go there to buy candy because you could do that in those days. I'm not even sure if the the theater sold candy, but we would go into the the Woolworth's and buy candy and bring it into the theater. And then there was Meyer Miller shoe store. We'd always go there to buy our school shoes. My parents have very specific memories too of Cedar and Lee. I know that they always went to Mawby's when it was there. And in fact, you might be familiar with Cleveland Food Memories, which was a book that came out several years ago edited by Gail Bellamy. And she did oral histories and she talked to my dad because, you know, specifically about Mawby's and he talked about how he always would try to go home and reproduce, how they made the French fries there. So, yes, Cedar and Lee was where we, you know, we would walk there to do everything.
Michael Rotman [00:06:05] Cool. So it's safe to say you liked growing up in Cleveland Heights.
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:06:08] Oh, yeah.
Michael Rotman [00:06:09] It was a good experience.
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:06:10] Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Michael Rotman [00:06:12] Cool. So tell me a little bit about how you came to own, own the store that we're sitting in right now.
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:06:19] Well. So, clearly I had a fond memory, fond memories of this neighborhood. And the other thing I guess I, I would say is that when I was a teenager, you know, in the mid '70s, we would come down to the street fair.
Michael Rotman [00:06:31] Oh, okay.
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:06:31] Because the street fair was going and, you know, and so, like, you know, thousands of people would be down here. It was just a great environment where you see lots of people and there's all these cool booths selling, you know, all kinds of stuff. So I went to college at Miami University. I majored in communications and political science. And when I came out, I got a job in the audiovisual department of the Ohio College of Podiatric Medicine. And I did that for a couple of years and I enjoyed that job. We did a lot of medical videotapes and medical photography, stuff like that, and I enjoyed that. I wrote some scripts for some of the educational videos that we did, but I realized that I had not really seen the country very much. And, you know, it was it's customary sometimes for people to take time off after college and travel. And I had never really done that. I just went right into working. So, I decided then after two years that I wanted to take some time off. So I took a year off and I traveled around the country and, you know, I visited a lot of bookstores when I was traveling. My good friend Jim McSherry, who's my co-owner with the bookstore, he owned a bookstore in Chagrin Falls. And so I was always interested, you know, in his store. And I was a shopper at his store. So when I came back to Cleveland after my year traveling, Jim had decided that he needed a second store because his store in Chagrin Falls was very small and he just had too many books. So we talked about opening a store down here. And because I love this neighborhood so much and I forgot to mention that when I was working for two years after I got out of college, I lived in this neighborhood. So that was in the early '80s and I lived right on Belmar, right around the corner. So this was you know, this was where I came to shop for everything. I wasn't much of a cook. So I came to Tommy's virtually every night. Tommy's was my, was my kitchen. So this is the... Naturally for us this was the neighborhood that we looked into open our store in Cleveland Heights
Michael Rotman [00:08:39] And what was Cleveland Heights... I guess what was the scene then at the beginning in the '80s?
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:08:45] Well, you know, Coventry was, it seemed very vibrant. The, the, I think the centerpiece some of the centerpieces of the street were Arabica. This was Arabica is the coffee shops first place, first location was on Coventry. They had a small kind of narrow coffee shop up near the corner of Euclid Heights and Coventry. So that was a big scene. Of course, Tommy's was huge. This was their, you know, their old set up where they had the two, the one room that had sort of like communal dining, big, big picnic tables. So that was big. Then, Coventry Books, of course, was here and that was a very popular spot, Record Revolution. Saloon was still going. So it was, it was a happening spot. At the same time, I think it was suffering from some of the economic woes of the time. And there started to be I don't know if it was disinvestment, but there started to be a lot of empty storefronts. So when we came down to look at the place, at the places for our bookstore, we really wanted to be down here. Coventry Books, was here and was a very important store. I'm not sure why at the time. I think it was just pure ignorance really on my part, especially why I would want to put a bookstore where there was another really great bookstore. You know, I guess I just assumed that there was a lot of room for all kinds of stores down here. And I think there actually was our first spot was above the Dobama Theatre. There was retail up there. And so we had two rooms above the Dobama Theatre and we were basically a used bookstore.
Michael Rotman [00:10:49] And you've been in Coventry Books before?
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:10:51] Yeah, oh, yeah, because.
Michael Rotman [00:10:53] Did you go there during the '70s?
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:10:53] Yeah, yeah. And I don't know if you've yet talked to Ellen Strong, who is the owner, but she would be a great person to talk to because she has a book bindery.
Michael Rotman [00:11:03] I'd like to meet her.
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:11:03] Yeah, right. Yeah. So she should be a great person to talk about the perspective from those days because in the during their heyday was was sort of the time that I was away at college. And then when I came back and lived here for two years in the early '80s, that was you know, I, I went to you know, my good friend had a store out in Chagrin Falls. So, you know, I used to go out to that bookstore a lot and but I came to Coventry Books, too. In fact, I bought my business partner a set of the Harvard classics from there. And I remember buying my brother was really into Jim Morrison and The Doors, wanted Jim Morrison's poetry books at Coventry Books. So, so, so, you know, I shop there just like everybody else did.
Michael Rotman [00:11:45] And when did they go out of business?
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:11:47] I think it was '83 or '84.
Michael Rotman [00:11:50] Okay.
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:11:51] Yeah. And Ellen will have, you know, all the insights into that. I think sort of what happened was they I think they opened another store in Berea in Berea Commons and then maybe that sort of destabilized their enterprise. But so that's what. So then we had opened in this like little spot above the Dobama Theatre in 1982 and there was both of our stores going until about '83 or '84. And then in '84, our landlord, besides owning the big white building where, you know, the Diamond's florist is, he also owned the building on north Coventry, where the saloon was, and now where, you know, High Thai'd Thai restaurant is... All that. So, at any rate, he was kind of doing musical chairs with some tenants and a spot opened up down there. And he asked us if we wanted to move into this bigger spot in north Coventry. The address down there was 1785 Coventry. So so we moved there in 1984.
Michael Rotman [00:12:59] Okay. And during the start, I mean, do you have any particular memories of, you know, starting up a business here. I mean, what was that like? Who were your customers? What kind of books did you stock? Were there any big challenges? I mean, this was your first time owning a business?
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:13:15] Yeah, you know, I, I when I originally came back to Cleveland after my travels, I thought and I knew my friend wanted to open another store. I thought, well, Okay. I'll do that for about a year and get it started. So what happened was it was just a really good fit for me because I love being around people and I'd always been a reader. But one thing I realized pretty quickly was how ignorant I really was about, about reading and books. I mean, I was always a reader from being a child all the way up. But, you know, I, we stocked the bookstore with used books, so we had a decent collection of just about everything. But we were in two small rooms so people would come in, would somehow find us up there, and people would come in and ask about authors that, you know, I had no idea who they were because, you know, it's a big wide world out there of books. So I remember especially one customer came in and said, asked if we had any Doc Savage books. Well, so Doc Savage is a character in a gigantic science fiction series. I had never heard of him. And so I was, you know, perplexed. And I think I asked him who that was. And this customer was just very disgusted that I had no idea who Doc Savage was. But I also learned that I had to be stupid if I was going to learn anything, because if I pretended like I knew I wasn't going, you know, that wasn't going to help me. So I would ask customers. And that customer was really an exception. I can't really even think of any anybody else who treated me that way. Everybody else was very forthcoming about their information and they would share information. So. So then gradually I learned the trade and I became knowledgeable because of shared information. And that's really kind of what a bookstore is. It's, you know, a symbiotic relationship between the customers, the books, you know, and the and the staff. So I know probably other people took different routes in the book business. They might have, you know, worked at a bookstore from when they were young and learned the trade. But we really kind of learn the trade just sort of by doing it. And so in a way, we were entrepreneurs and I feel like I was one because we did things a little bit unconventionally, because we just kind of reacted to the environment
Michael Rotman [00:15:39] And was it, was it a unique environment? Were we particularly well suited for Coventry?
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:15:44] Well, yeah, I feel that. I particularly was well suited to Coventry because I just I, we liked the neighborhood because of its diversity. I mean, this has always been a very diverse neighborhood with all different kinds of people, all different ages, all races, all sexualities. And I just you know, and I always found it to be a very open and welcoming place for all kinds of people. And that just fit in with my worldview. So I am a people person and I really like so I really liked the, the encounters with customers and then having the additional bonus of being able to talk about books and to sell books was, was just, I guess ideal for me because I'm still here after all these years. When we moved on to the store down the street, we had a much bigger space and we were able to start doing events there. And so I think an important thing happened when we started doing the poetry readings there. Daniel Thompson, who is died in 2004, but he was very influential for a lot of us. He was a poet, was a poet who had an extraordinary social conscience. And anyways, he, they had he had been sort of promoting a reading series at Arabica, but there were censorship concerns there. So he asked if we could do it at the bookstore. So we started doing a poetry reading series at our bookstore. And, and the censorship concerns was basically I think that, you know, when we do readings after all these years, our poetry reading series is almost 30 years old. Now, I've rarely had to feel uncomfortable about material, or words, language, etc. but we've had a little bit of a sheltered environment. So we, you know, here we do the readings in the basement there. We did the reading sort of in a back room. When you're in a coffee shop like there are different kinds of people are listening. So I, I'm sure that there was some sensitivities there. And so that's why they asked us to do the reading. And so we had we started doing events, particularly poetry readings that brought in a lot of people and that, you know, just sort of established an identity for our store as well.
Michael Rotman [00:18:13] Were there any particularly memorable events that you can think of?
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:18:16] Well, the accumulation of the readings themselves, I mean, we, we the we featured three readers every month and then we did an open mic. So just about all of the poets that were affiliated with the Cleveland poetry community, you know, came through our doors and read. And so that's. Just sort of a tremendous artistic imprint I guess that it left on the store. The Cleveland is sort of known for its poetry community and for its poets, somehow we breed them here in a way that no other community has. I believe that very strongly. And so there's been a lot of talent here and it's been supported a number of ways by the institutions: Cleveland State Poetry Center, the environment down at Kent State. There's been a lot of things that have factored into it and for sure, the street poets in the underground poetry scene, which we were, which we were part of, and which we nourished and they nourished us. So that was that was a huge thing. So just the I think the the literary imprint, artistic imprint that all those poets left on the store accumulated over the years.
Michael Rotman [00:19:40] What was one of those like? I mean, I'm just trying to picture. I've never been to a reading here, but I mean, what was the scene like?
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:19:49] Well, it's interesting. When we first started, it took maybe two or three years for it to really get going. I mean, we would only have a handful of people, but there was a like excuse me, a guy named Bill Pollack, who is a poet who lives in Cincinnati now. And he had a very charismatic presence. It was a quiet presence. He was sort of a big man. And he had kind of he had long hair and he was an excellent poet. So he would come no matter what to those readings and he would listen to who, you know, ever was reading. And then during the open mic, he would share his work. Well, it came to be the people would come to hear him because he was a very good poet. And he was also very welcoming to all different kinds of people. So he was sort of the moral center, you know, of the readings in the first several years. So they slowly, slowly grew and gained a reputation. And I think it was because of him. And then, so then we would we would start to get pretty big crowds and audiences to our reading in in that space. We had two big rooms and we would do the readings in the back room. And the back room, the back wall was all science fiction. And so that was the background for the readers. And then so people would be sitting all in that back room and then for the extra big readings, they would be spilling out into the front room. And so and we would have the featured readers and then we take a break and then we do an open mike. So that was just kind of the set up. There would be lots of people and people would be listening. And I remember sometimes having to caution people in the back room to be quiet and pay attention. That was always a big thing with me. You know, I just wanted people to to listen. And you had to sometimes supervise that. But but now we really don't have a problem with that anymore. So it's it's it was a listening environment for people to, you know, share their poetry.
Michael Rotman [00:21:45] That's a neat idea because I, it's, in, you know, 2012, there's so much electronics, there's so many diversions. So it's, it's interesting to just yeah just sit and be quiet and listen to somebody read poetry. I mean, what do you like it so much? I mean, what is it? I just how does it make you feel or what does it give you?
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:22:04] Well, it's... It's the same kind of experience, I think, that people have when they look at a really great painting or they have a really good piece of music. It's fulfilling and it's. It's elevating, it's it's spiritual, [it's] all the things that good writing and good literature can bring to your soul. So it's healing. I mean, I remember a couple of times and I've had that experience when I've listened to music too maybe feeling like I was getting the flu or something and just afterwards feeling so much better because of the emotional uplift. And, you know, of course, poems range through everything good, bad, horrific, and anything a poem can be about. But it's just the artistry that's involved in the writing that elevated me and elevated everybody in the room, I think. So that was what attracted me so much to it.
Michael Rotman [00:23:01] That's great. So what do you think and you have kind of touched on it a little bit, but so, you know, you hear the news that all these bookstores are closing, but Mac's Backs is still around. It seems like you guys are doing really well. So what do you think is accounting for that?
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:23:16] Well, a couple of things. So we, you know, our store grew very, very slowly and symbiotically with, with the neighborhood. We're a book exchange; we trade for books. So our store kind of always reflected the tastes of the community. We live, like I said, in a very diverse area, and it's also a very educated area. So our customers would come in, you know, looking for we've always sold a lot of classics. So, so anyways, our store reflects the community in that way. And we have basically been a used bookstore. But over the years we added new books and we have a very active magazine section too. So we have 80 percent, probably new, used books excuse me, 80 percent used books, 20 percent new books, and then our magazine section. So we didn't have exactly the same pressures that were on the new bookstores. The new book chains, because we're essentially a used bookstore and. The new book stores, the chains, had very big footprints, and when the economic downturn happened, they had to pay a lot of rent and they also had to fill those big spaces with a lot of books. So there is a very, very, very expensive enterprise. At the same time, you have the introduction of e-books. So you're losing some of your best customers because they're the first to adapt the new technology and now they're not coming into your store anymore to buy books or they're coming in a lot less and they're downloading books onto their E-Readers. So that is essentially, I think, what happened to Borders. Barnes & Noble has been able to maintain a little bit better because they sell the Nook, which is an E-Reader, and that is really sort of driving their subsistence right now. So the other thing that has led to us being able to survive is our location. You know, this neighborhood has always been great. We're attached to a very in our third spot here on the street, we're attached to a very popular restaurant. And so that has helped us just the the vibrancy of our neighbor, neighboring retailers. I mean, people come down the street to shop at all the different stores, and we're part of that. So this is the, the street essentially has been part of our success because of the other merchants and all the great stuff that they have here on the street. And the other thing is has always been that we've had, you know, an educated populace who understands about buying local. So even before buying local became a big, huge thing in different neighborhoods, our customers were already doing it. And and even more so now, there is the sensibility out there that people understand the value of their small retailers and they want to keep them. So we've benefited from people being aware of supporting their local, local merchants. So I think those are those are some of the reasons why, you know, why we've been able to be here. And now there's a tradition established because this is actually 2012 is our 30th year on Coventry so.
Michael Rotman [00:26:29] And so do you think you'll stay in this location?
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:26:31] Yeah. Oh, yeah. I mean, it's a, it's a good, it's a good fit for us. And, you know, every once in a while someone comes and says, oh, you know, maybe you should go into a different community, expand your store. But, you know, I feel that I'm, I'm not really an executive and I'm a shopkeeper and I like my customers. I like to know my customers. And I think that's a big part of being in a bookstore, is knowing your customers and knowing what they they're looking for. So I'm not the, you know, kind of person who can expand. I don't think I think I like to be just, you know, right here.
Michael Rotman [00:27:04] Sure. Do you think the Coventry neighborhood I mean, have you seen it change that much or do you think it [inaudible]?
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:27:07] Well, it's interesting because it, you know, in the early '80s, it was I think it was at its lowest point. There was a lot of empty storefronts, you know, and that changed gradually. People took a chance on coming down to the street, I think one of the you know, undoubtedly one of the big things that happened was when big, Big Fun came because, you know, Steve Presser is a great entrepreneur. He's a great personality. And he had a great concept. He has a great concept for a store. So that became a magnet for the street. Tommy's has always been a magnet for the street. And then you have some of the great restaurants also attracting people like Hunan's. So gradually the empty storefronts started to happened. But the biggest change that I've seen in the last couple of years is the way that north Coventry is beginning to thrive. Throughout this whole 30 years that we've been on the street. I know stores have always struggled on north Coventry. And when we had our store down there, we were down there for eight years and it was a great place for us to grow and develop. Our landlord was a smart landlord. He kept our rent low so we were able to grow. I mean, if we had like a huge rent. I don't know if we would have been able to do that selling used books. But he was a very savvy man. Ross was his name.
Michael Rotman [00:28:29] Okay.
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:28:29] Herbert, Harold Ross. Roth, I'm sorry, Roth. I'm mixing him up with The New Yorker editor. So anyways, so he was just he was a good guy and he kept our rent very affordable. So we were able to grow. And then when we came here, our rent was higher, but we were able to maintain it. So but we needed to move because after a certain point down there, we had grown as much as we were going to grow. There was a natural barrier at Hampshire for people coming down to north Coventry for some reason, people. And we would watch people, you know, stop there, kind of look down the street. Maybe there's nothing more for us down there, you know, and and turn around. And one of the first things I noticed when we moved here was just people wearing jewelry because the people that were finding us down there were like more of the more bohemian types. You know, once we moved down here was like people could afford to wear a bracelet or earrings or something like that. I know that's an odd recollection, but I remember thinking that so north Coventry was always a place where the seekers would go, but you just weren't getting the mass of masses of people going down there. And I should say one other thing, too. When the parking garage got built, that was another big thing for the street, because it was always hard for people to find parking here. And when the parking garage was built, I mean, that was huge. People were were able to park and, you know, there was the grocery store here for over there was Medic. The, after the grocery store left then Medic was here and that was a big draw. And then a Marc's came. That kept the draw at there for convenience stores. So that's also very important. Okay, so then I'll just finish your question by saying that the biggest change I've seen in the last couple of years is the clothing stores that have opened on north Coventry that seem to be thriving and that have really created an environment down there. So I don't think there's a resistance anymore walking down there and people it just flows just like it's part of the street.
Michael Rotman [00:30:30] It's right around there, too. Is, is Revolution Books.
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:30:33] Yeah.
Michael Rotman [00:30:34] Been there for awhile. Do you know anything about the history of that store or if you've been in there?
Suzanne DeGaetano [00:30:38] Well, Revolution Books is maintained by volunteers who are very committed to their point of view. And so they're part of a network of revolutionary books, you know, around the country. And so they have the sort of new books that espouse that worldview. And then they have used books, too. So they are very, very active politically around the issues that they care about. So that's kind of what drives them. They. You know, they've, they're very you know, they're very visible with certain political issues and they've brought in political writers to talk about things and they're, you know, sell the newspaper on the street sometimes. They're pretty active at some of the major street fairs bringing out their newspaper and their ideas. So, you know, yeah, I probably be really worthwhile to talk to them about, you know, the stuff that they've seen over the years.
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