Mac’s Backs Books on Coventry: a community anchor for 40+ years

Despite a global pandemic and economic challenges for independent bookstores, Mac’s Backs in Cleveland Heights is succeeding with a focus on building community and hosting a wide variety of events.
Owner Suzanne DeGaetano at Mac’s Backs. (Photo by E’chieko Tamu)

Mac’s Back Books at 1820 Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights is a bookstore that transcends the transactional. As a self proclaimed bibliophile, I came across Mac’s bookstore when I moved to the Cleveland area two years ago. One of the first things I do in a new area is find the nearest library and bookstore. 

Walking into Mac’s, what stands out is the feeling of home – the feeling of your favorite reading nook. Knowledgeable staff are eager to find the book you’ve been looking for and to suggest many more. You are encouraged to find a spot on the floor and lose yourself in a book.

What I didn’t know about at first was Mac’s long history on Coventry and the key role it still plays in the community. The owners and staff at Mac’s are dedicated to inviting people into the store for events, supporting local authors and artists, and reaching out to partner with neighbors. Mac’s is more than a bookstore – it’s a community anchor.

Mac’s Backs has been on Coventry Road since 1982. (Photo by Sharon Holbrook)’

Deep roots 

Mac’s, along with Suzanne DeGaetano, has been a fixture on Coventry Road since 1982. The bookstore goes back even further to 1978, when Jim McSherry bought a used bookshop in Chagrin Falls. After trying out a number of locations – including three different storefronts on Coventry – Mac’s landed at its current location in 1993. DeGaetano, who has been managing the Coventry store since 1982, is business partners and co-owners of Mac’s with McSherry. 

Coventry has long been a favorite place for college students and teens and a home base for artists, music, and bohemian life. DeGaetano grew up nearby, and she says she loved the diversity and the dynamic street life of Coventry. DeGaetano says one of the keys to Mac’s success on Coventry and its connection to the community is that it’s a “walking community” and a place where she’s seen customers grow from children’s books to adult books. 

Even during the pandemic, when many businesses failed, Mac’s was able to stay open because loyal customers supported the store. After a temporary, six-week shift to online sales – during which customers continued to buy books – DeGaetano opened in person again. “The customers have made a huge effort to support us,and to support small business,” saying the support goes beyond the pandemic. “The buy-local movement that has supported small businesses around the country has always been strong here.”

She also contributes their staying power to Coventry’s community of small local businesses. “It’s kind of an old-fashioned walking community with a lot of street life, so all of our stores are connected. People come to one of the restaurants, and they go to some of the other shops. And so it’s a whole kind of experience.”  

Fostering arts and writing

Walk into a local coffee shop, bookstore, or library, and you will likely see a poster or business card for an event hosted by or supported by Mac’s Bookstore. I personally took part in their April 1 workshop, “How to Assemble a Book of Poems,” which highlighted many local writers and offered deep discussion on poetry and different methods of writing and publishing your own works. There’s also a poetry reading and open mic every month, along with many other events.

DeGaetano works to elevate local writers and visual artists by featuring their work in the store, on the Mac’s website, and by regularly hosting special events like author talks and book signings.

One longtime collaborator with Mac’s Backs has been youth creative writing nonprofit Lake Erie Ink, which is just up Coventry Road and across PEACE Park from Mac’s at the former Coventry School building. Founder and executive director Amy Rosenbluth says Mac’s Backs supported LEI from its start 12 years ago. They’ve made plenty of recommendations, welcomed LEI students into the store with open arms, and they show up to events with books. 

Every summer, for example, Lake Erie Ink holds a zine-making workshop for kids. (Zines are small-scale, self-published works featuring both text and images and are akin to magazines.) Rosenbluth says the class goes to Mac’s, where DeGaetano talks to the kids about zines and pulls out her own collection. She even put the kids’ zines out for sale in the store. “That’s what I mean by support,” said Rosenbluth. “It’s not just financial or merchandise. It’s valuing the kids.” 

Lake Erie Ink has also published anthologies of teen writing, and DeGaetano has helped with publishing questions and also sells those books in the store. Mac’s respects the kids and their work, says Rosenbluth. “I think that just comes off to the kids. Like they belong in a bookstore like anybody else. And their work is creative and beautiful and powerful, just like other writers’.”

Community connections

Mac’s Backs is located in Cleveland Heights, but its presence extends all over Cleveland. That’s because Mac’s is present at events all over the city – branch libraries, literary events, and events for kids. “You will hard-pressed to go to a function and not see a Mac’s table supporting literacy and local art,” said Rosenbluth. That presence is especially important, she says, because not everyone can make it to the bookstore – at these events, the bookstore comes to them. 

“I don’t think I know how to do anything other than being collaborative, really,” DeGaetano told me. “I just like when we can bring community groups in besides ourselves to sponsor an event or to be part of an event because it brings all different kinds of energies. And, you know, our store is small, so we often have to look for partnerships because we can’t always do events in our space.”

Looking ahead, DeGaetano is hopeful for even more community connection among businesses and local organizations. “Lake Erie Ink is amazing … The dream, I think, for our neighborhood is to create a very strong nonprofit center at the Coventry School with the people that are there — the artists and nonprofits that care so passionately about each other and about what they’re doing.” She also looks forward to upgrades to PEACE Park, which is now owned by the Heights libraries, and where evening Poetry in the Park events will take place this summer.

Meanwhile, DeGaetano is committed to building that community within Mac’s. She has a close relationship with her customers and likes to hear their stories and provide a comfortable safe space. “I always think that if somebody’s walking in the door, they’ve got a set of burdens and responsibilities … and my goal is to just make people feel comfortable and safe and bring pleasure to their day,” she said.

“It’s the coziness,” a customer named Cody recently told me, along with the many events at Mac’s, that keeps them coming back. 

Sitting with Suzanne is an experience I think everyone should have. Just like her store, she is knowledgeable and calm, and within 15 minutes she will suggest a book and or event at Mac’s that is perfect for you.

E’chieko Tamu participated in The Land’s community journalism program.

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