Cleveland Arts Prize Winner Suzanne DeGaetano celebrates Over 30 Years at Mac's Backs
A driving force in Greater Cleveland’s literary landscape is one of this year’s Cleveland Arts Prize honorees. Since 1982, Suzanne DeGaetano has promoted local writers, organized author signings and hosted book clubs at Mac’s Backs bookstore on Coventry Road. It all started with an offer from her friend, Jim McSherry, who owned a bookstore in Chagrin Falls and wanted to start a Cleveland Heights branch.
"I thought, 'I'll do this for a couple years'," she said. "It was such an intriguing idea to me."
In 1982, she thought she would run the new Mac's Backs for a couple years. (photo /Suzanne DeGaetano)
Nearly four decades later, DeGaetano's still manager and co-owner of Mac's Backs and has dedicated herself to nurturing the local literary scene. That community outreach started in 1984 when the store began hosted monthly open-mic poetry readings.
"The poetry readings came about because [the late Cleveland poet and social activist] Daniel Thompson [co-sponsored] a reading series at the Arabica on Coventry," she said. But, the popular coffee shop shut their readings down due to some language concerns and they shifted over to Mac's Backs, where poet Mark Hopkins began booking the readers.
More recently, DeGaetano and Joyce Brabner, wife of the late Harvey Pekar, helped establish a small park and performance area outside of Mac's Backs dedicated to the famed Cleveland writer.
"Harvey lived in the neighborhood and he was a regular when the books came out; we would do book-signings," she said, adding that Pekar also frequented library book sales and Zubal's rare book store on Cleveland's westside. "Harvey was almost a scholar in his reading and his thinking, so he'd like to engage in serious discussions."
DeGaetano noted that there were lean times when mega stores like Borders and Joseph Beth dominated the local book market, attracting a mainstream audience.
“What people tended to do was go to the big box stores," she said. "They never looked around for the neighborhood stores. So, we were there, we were always there”
And she said it was a loyal, local following that allowed the neighborhood stores across Greater Cleveland to survive when the big box outlets closed. Coventry is actually home to a number of long-lived shops, such as 30-year-old Attenson's Antiques, 40-year-old Passport To Peru, and 50-year-old Record Revolution.
"It's always been a kind of bohemian neighborhood," DeGaetano said. It's very diverse, which is what we've always loved about it. And so I think people feel at home there."
Suzanne DeGaetano says her staff members are encouraging her to be proud of her own history, being celebrated by the Cleveland Arts Prize.
"I understand that the award is because I've been here for a long time, " she said. "I've been involved in a lot of literary things in my career. I'm a connector, it's my favorite thing to do. I love connecting people with books or opportunities in the literary community. And that's what makes me really happy. I think that's why I'm being given this award, but I also see it as that I'm a face of a much larger community."
(photo / Suzanne DeGaetano)
Suzanne DeGaetano and the other 2018 Cleveland Arts Prize winners will be honored at an Oct. 21 ceremony at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Hear more from DeGaetano on Harvey Pekar, the challenge of big box book retailers and the long-predicted death of the book: