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Co-owner Maryann Calendrille at Canio’s. (Photo credit: Emily Toy)

This summer, Barnes & Noble is coming to the South Fork, slated to move into two storefront spaces in the Bridgehampton Commons. And although the mega bookstore is sure to become a quick stop for the newest “it” novel or a last-minute gift, for folks here in the Hamptons, it is within the substantially smaller but much mightier independent bookstores where the true treasures lie. 

Whether you’re looking for a rare collector’s edition of a classic or a lesser known, cutting-edge memoir, most local bookstores have been around for decades, each one with its own unique and undeniable charm. Bonus: They all offer online ordering, too (B&N and Amazon haven’t cornered that market entirely).

Since 1980, Canio’s Books (290 Main Street, Sag Harbor, 631-725-4926)) has been serving locals and visitors alike. Located about a half mile south of the village’s center, this Main Street shop is a Sag Harbor gem. 

At Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor, you’re welcome to curl up in the store chair and read. (Photo credit: Emily Toy)

“I saw it as an act of preservation,” says co-owner Maryann Calendrille, on taking over from original owner Canio Pavone.

Since 1999, Calendrille and co-owner Kathryn Szoka have carefully curated their bookshop’s inventory, with categories ranging from nature and fiction to photography and spirituality. At Canio’s, it’s heavy on Sag Harbor-themed content, with plenty of John Steinbeck and Herman Melville available. 

“It’s a daily editing practice,” she says.

Stepping into Canio’s is stepping back in time. Patrons shift around the tight corners of the bookshop, whispering to each other, “Oh wow, they have it!” Books are both tucked away neatly on bookshelves as well as stacked, somewhat haphazardly, on chairs and tables. Szoka’s photography adorns the walls. There’s a basket of handmade cat toys arranged on a table lined with dozens of tiny books of Irish poetry and vintage postcards. The floors are creaky, the odor is musty. It’s glorious.

Szoka is no stranger to dealing with the threat of big box stores infiltrating the area. In 2005, she helped form Box-Busters—a group of local merchants, community groups and concerned citizens. Box-Busters encouraged Southampton Town to support local businesses and prompted superstore legislation to protect disruption of the local economy.

“Clearly small, independent bookshops are focused on our community and how to enhance and nourish it,” she says. “We are often the first place people come to when they visit or move to the area.”

Canio’s also serves as somewhat of a community center, featuring plenty of guest speakers as well as workshops on writing and photography. (Click here for their calendar of events.)

The last remaining BookHampton (41 Main Street, East Hampton, 631-324-4939) remains a stronghold on the tony’s village’s main drag. Since taking over in 2016, owner Carolyn Brody has revamped the interior, emphasizing the store’s amazing natural light with neutral, tan-colored shelves that highlight her 5,000-strong inventory in her small 1,000-square foot store.

There’s also a multitude of events ever going on here all year long, like visiting authors giving readings from their latest tome, a robust monthly Bookhampton book club that meets at Long House Reserve, Brody’s awesome Authors to Schools program, where touring authors and book illustrators come into local schools and talk to kids about their work and what it’s like make a career in the creative realm, as well as online and live school book fairs.

Southampton Books (16 Hampton Road, 631-283-0270) is the baby of Greg Harris and Daniel Hirsch, two former BookHampton employees who jumped at the opportunity to buy when the previous owner decided to sell back in 2015. Their big love of books was a gift to residents and visitors alike, allowing for Southampton to keep an independent bookstore in town. Since then the owners opened a second location on Sag Harbor’s Main Street.

The bevy of books from local and further-afield authors at Southampton Books. (Photo credit: Emily Toy)

The Southampton location is approachable, fresh and organized, offering the ubiquitous, contemporary novels as well as super rare, first addition classics. With shiny hardwood floors and bright, white bookshelves that stretch to the ceiling, the vibe is light and airy with plenty of brightly colored stimuli all around. Large hardcover coffee table books face upward, covering every inch of the table they’re laid upon. Also for sale are the gamut of good house-guest gifts: boxes of stationary, candles, t-shirts, prints, tote bags, puzzles and boardgames. There’s an ample kids section plus a glass bookshelf for the super special signed and/or first edition copies.

Sweet little Red Jacket Books (77D Main St., Westhampton Beach, 533-5580) opened virtually in July 2020; that first summer of the pandemic when the need to read (and escape a pretty overwhelming situation) was as necessary as oxygen. Since moving to a brick-and-mortar Main Street store, owner Ben Vengroff (who named the shop for his lucky red jacket) is driven to find you the perfect read. He’s also super supportive of local writers (shout out to WHB authors Isabel Vincent and Shay Siegel, young adult novelist who occasionally contributes to these pages).

He may be a newcomer, but Vengroff’s shop and book-adoring presence seems like they’ve been part of the community fabric for longer than just a couple of years and change. Check out his Ben’s Picks for great recs on both new fiction and non-fiction, as well as classics you’ll want to revisit (you can also follow his personal Instagram page, where he reviews books weekly). He also has a monthly book club, an annual short-story contest, great gifts like games, totes, stationary and Red Jacket swag. It’s an excellent stop on your way to the beach if you forgot a paperback or just feel like chatting about authors with Vengroff.

Dawn Hedberg, owner of collector’s paradise, Black Cat Books (54 N. Ferry Road, Shelter Island, 631-725-8654), doesn’t feel threatened by a corporate bookstore moving into the area at all. She’s been in the book business for nearly 30 years, with her impressive collection reaching upwards of 20,000 books. Her 2,400-square foot bookstore features neatly arranged bookshelves packed with tomes on everything from art to baseball. There’s a section filled with pulp paperbacks as well as countless signed first editions of some of literature’s most famous works, as well as the vinyl-record filled front room, making this island treasure a music-hound’s dream, too.

Sit with a first-edition of your fave in Black Cat Book’s shady little outdoor sitting area. (Photo courtesy of Black Cat Books)

“I have one of the largest art and photography collections in Suffolk County,” she says. Her pristine collection includes super rare children’s books (like a signed limited first edition of Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeline and the Bad Hat from 1956) as well as a signed first edition of some of literatures most famed authors (like Toni Morrison’s Son of Soloman). The amount of mint condition first edition books Hedberg has in her possession is nearly overwhelming; one could happily peruse around for hours.

“I don’t feel like blockbuster stores threaten my business,” she says. 

For Hedberg, it’s all about creating a mood and an atmosphere, noting how she’s always curating her store to her customer’s taste. This includes, but isn’t limited to, constant buying and gathering (or what Hedberg calls “hunting”) from estate sales, yard sales and thrift stores. “I’ve created a really cool place to go, where you can spend hours in my store,” she says. “I don’t make a lot of money. I just love independent bookstores. They’re labors of love.”