A book from Canio’s

Over the years I’ve discovered a few bookstores that match my personal literary taste. Luckily these stores are still in business (for now), and they affirm my belief in the value of the serendipitous book search.

Enter a physical place with no idea what you’re looking for. Trust that it’s there. “It” being that one book you were always looking for – though, actually, you had no idea it existed.

You’ve followed your influences. You know the new or new-ish writers. In your mind you’re making all the logical literary connections that only you can understand. And you believe that that book you need or want but had no idea you needed or wanted just might be on the bookstore shelf, somewhere, if only you keep looking.

If it appears today, you will be rewarded. If it doesn’t, you’ll visit this store again – to try once more. Very soon. On another night. On a different Sunday afternoon. On some other lunch break during a lifetime of lunch breaks. Because you’ve got hope “it” will show up there, eventually.

But yours is more than wishful thinking: the bookseller knows what you want – even though you’ve never spoken – because what you want in a book is what she wants in a book. That is, of course, why you patronize this bookstore in the first place. It’s an experience (a way of living, I’d say) that can only happen in the offline world; it’s a type of book-searching that is vanishing.

There’s little use in denying – or raging at – that reality. Massive tectonic changes have long been underway. We all know what they are. I’m skirting the facts and the narrative here; simply acknowledging tacitly the monolithic corporate and cultural forces in play.

Though I admit that sometimes I feel as if I’m one of a dying tribe of practitioners: the last person in the factory who knows how to operate that obsolete machine in the corner, the final priest to understand the meaning of the words in our prayers.

In truth, there are many people just like me. Maybe you think and feel this way, too. If so, like me, for now and for the immediate future, you’ll live as you always have: you’ll go to your bookstore(s). You’ll search. You’ll browse. You’ll leave. You’ll return.

And sometimes you’ll find that one book that proves you were right all along.


Recently I was proved correct again at Canio’s in Sag Harbor, NY. It’s a great store but I could never have imagined the book I found there this fall. If you’d told me its title beforehand, I would’ve yawned. If you had told me the price for this twenty-five-year-old book about rural people in the state of New Mexico, I might have balked. But it happens to be a book I was searching for – though I had no idea it existed.

It’s called Villages of Hispanic New Mexico and it was published in 1987 by the School of American Research Press.

Its author is Nancy Hunter Warren.

Warren started visiting rural villages in New Mexico in 1973. She returned regularly for the next twelve years. Her efforts resulted in a history of the social life and customs of places named La Manga, Cleveland, Bernal, Abeytas, Chimayo, Tierra Amarilla, Ojo Sarco, Las Nutrias, Tecolote, La Joya, and La Cienega. She writes about the people, the Church (Catholic), the architecture, their economic lives, feast days, Los Hermanos Penitentes, and so on. It’s a smart, well-written, and well-researched book.

The reader gets the sense that Warren captured life very close to how it truly was in the mid-1970s through the late 1980s, and she did so with an affection and humility as well as with an unsentimental eye befitting an anthropological study. That’s hard to do, I’d imagine. And though she’s honest about what she sees – this includes poverty and suffering – she’s not gaping at her subjects, and therefore neither are we. She heeds without judgment; renders without voyeuristic results.

Her book appeals to me for many reasons, but mainly because I’m intrigued (have always been) by place and the role of place in our so-called modern lives. Warren’s book can be read now in part as a requiem for Place – that is, for those villages in New Mexico she visited repeatedly during one decade of her life, long ago. The religion of the people – inextricable from a specific place and an all-powerful landscape – also captivated me:

“The dramatic and elemental nature of the New Mexican landscape is too intense for some. There is little in it that is soft or yielding. Rather, people have learned to adapt to the environment. It is a place of the spirit, where the soul finds beauty in starkness and gathers strength from the forces of nature. As one villager put it, the mountains are ‘an anchor. They are here. They never leave us…they are nearer to God than us.'”

I’ve wanted to write for some time about my own experiences with religion and a specific suburban place; how that place and places like it alter and can in fact nullify a search for meaning, in a spiritual and religious sense. Eventually I will get to that project – or maybe I won’t. But in the meantime I have Warren’s book: a document about the rickety marriage of God to place.

And yet, all the points I’ve made in the brief paragraphs above – they are merely extra benefits. The truth: I bought Villages for the pictures, solely for the beautiful arresting photographs, also by Nancy Hunter Warren. (I only discovered afterward that they serve to buttress and elevate the fine text.) Fittingly, the best images are of the New Mexico landscape. But there are also many beautiful portraits of the people who lived there – residents Warren came to know well.


Where the Rio Chama approaches the Rio Grande

“the New Mexican landscape…too intense for some”

Portraits – Cleveland and La Manga

Portraits – Mora Valley and La Manga

Portrait – La Manga

The above cropped photos do little justice to Warren’s images as they appear in her book. So I suggest you buy Villages for yourself, directly from the publisher. That might be the fastest way.


“The fastest way.”

That brings me to my final point: at present Canio’s, the store where I bought Villages, is fighting for its survival. While writing this post I learned that Sag Harbor’s only operating bookstore is facing a punitive rent hike – an all-too-familiar tale for booksellers nationwide, in cities and towns alike.

Kathryn Szoka and Maryann Calendrille have owned Canio’s since 1999, and thankfully they’re not giving up. They’re carrying on with the help of the community, grants (possibly), and the good will and support of the people who value their wonderful bookstore. But like life in the Villages of Hispanic New Mexico, places like Canio’s are disappearing fast or are already gone.

And it causes me to ask: once new/used/rare bookstores disappear, what will replace them? What will supersede the pleasure of visiting them with no agenda other than to see what they’ve got?

I don’t know.

Whatever that might be though I can assure you: it won’t be found online.

It won’t be re-produced digitally.

It won’t be safely relocated to a web-based “community.”

Nor will it be delivered to you via an app that tailors an experience based on your user preferences, D.O.B, past purchases.

Something will be lost, undoubtedly.