Macís Backsí DeGaetano is 2018 Cleveland Arts Prize honoree

2018 Cleveland Arts Prize-recipient Suzanne DeGaetano at Mac's Backs.

“Total shock” was the reaction of Mac’s Backs’ co-owner and manager Suzanne DeGaetano upon learning that she had been awarded a 2018 Cleveland Arts Prize. “I don’t deserve it,” was her next thought.

The Arts Prize trustees apparently disagreed, explaining in a statement their decision to award the 2018 Martha Joseph Prize to DeGaetano: “Within the Cleveland arts community, she has established herself as a patron saint among emerging and seasoned poets, writers and artists. She knows most by name. Her generosity and commitment to Northeast Ohio's literary community knows no bounds.”

“I think of the award as one that honors the local writers whose books we sell at Mac’s Backs,” said DeGaetano.

The Cleveland Arts Prize, established in 1960 by the Women’s City Club, is now the nation’s oldest municipal arts award. It recognizes local artists as well as those “community leaders who help regional arts flourish.”

The 2018 winners will be honored at an Oct. 22 ceremony at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

DeGaetano is the latest in a long line of Cleveland Heights residents to receive a Cleveland Arts Prize. Among the best-known local recipients are Jules and Miles Belkin, Eric Coble, Dorothy Fuldheim, Peter B. Lewis, Les Roberts, Michael Ruhlman and Viktor Shreckengost.

Damien McClendon, recently named Cleveland Heights poet laureate by Heights Arts, is another 2018 Cleveland Arts Prize recipient, honored as one of five “on the verge” fellows. Although McClendon has never lived in the Heights, he calls Cleveland Heights his “spiritual home,” citing his frequent visits, from a young age, to Coventry and its arts scene. [See an article about McClendon in the June 2018 issue of the Heights Observer.]

For the past 36 years, DeGaetano has used her role as co-owner and manager of Mac’s Backs on Coventry Road to promote local writers and to engage residents in the literary scene. She hosts talks by authors, book clubs created by staff and local residents, and monthly open-mike poetry readings, which have been held on the second Wednesday of the month for the past 34 years.

DeGaetano’s love affair with Cleveland Heights goes back to age 2, when her parents moved here from Cleveland’s Buckeye-Shaker neighborhood. Her love of books soon took root in family trips to choose books at the Coventry Village Library.

When the family moved to Lee Road, to live in a house that stood on the site of the current diner, her favorite haunt soon became the main library. “When I got old enough, I could walk to the Lee Road branch, enjoying the stroll past the Cedar-Lee Theatre and Woolworth's—the Big Fun of its time. I remember spending one summer borrowing all the suspense novels Mary Stewart wrote and reading them one after the other.”

Although she moved to the Old Brooklyn neighborhood in 1998, DeGaetano said that her heart has always remained in Cleveland Heights and Coventry.

“Coventry is a walking neighborhood and a crossroads culture, and I love the diversity of people who are attracted to the shops and restaurants here,” DeGaetano explained.

Managing a bookstore was definitely not in DeGaetano’s plans when she graduated from Ohio’s Miami University, where she studied political science and radio/TV communications. “At that time,” said DeGaetano, “I had planned to be making documentary films.”

What has kept DeGaetano at Mac’s Backs for 36 years? “It’s the books and the people,” DeGaetano said. “I love talking to people and I love hearing their stories.” It is not surprising, then, that DeGaetano supplemented her work at the bookstore for 30 years by working part time as a bartender at the Barking Spider, trading “people and books” for “people and music.”

As more book sales have gone online and digital, DeGaetano said she believes that bookstores will continue to offer an irreplaceable experience by enabling people to discover books that they didn’t know existed, particularly books in underserved genres, such as poetry, and books by local writers. “There is no online experience,” said DeGaetano, “like browsing in a bookstore!”

Robert Brown

Robert Brown is a city planner with more than 40 years of experience, including nine years as Cleveland's city planning director. A resident of Cleveland Heights for 40-plus years, Brown serves on the board of FutureHeights.

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Volume 11, Issue 9, Posted 12:20 PM, 08.21.2018