Narrative history author Russell Shorto sat hour after hour inside Harrigan’s Café & Wine Deck, listening to his second cousin Frank Filia play the standup bass and sing.
With the jazz music providing ambience in the background, Shorto would talk with people who provided him information about Johnstown’s bygone heyday for his new book “Smalltime: A Story of My Family and the Mob.”
On Thursday, he returned to the restaurant, located inside the Holiday Inn Johnstown-Downtown, for a book signing.
Shorto was joined by a roomful of supporters.
They talked, ate lunch from the Italian buffet and, as usual, listened to Filia entertain.
“It’s funny,” said Shorto, a Johnstown native and current Cumberland, Maryland, resident. “You come right back inside your book because I did a lot of research for the book right here, sitting down with people, meeting people for lunch, always when Frank and John (Pencola) are playing.”
“Smalltime” is a story about the 20th-century Johnstown mob.
But it is also a memoir of family discovery, as the author explored his grandfather Russell “Russ” Shorto’s connection to that world of gambling and the effect it had on his son Tony Shorto, Russell Shorto’s father.
“I’m thrilled to death – not for me, for Russell – because it was cathartic for him,” Filia said.
Filia knew the old-time mob guys and encouraged his cousin – Shorto jokingly says “prodded” – to write the book.
“I wouldn’t have written this without Frank,” Shorto said.
Filia envisioned a story about the subject for years before talking to Shorto, a Dutch knight in the Order of Orange-Nassau and author of six other books – “Revolution Song,” “Amsterdam,” “Descartes’ Bones,” “The Island at the Center of the World,” “Saints and Madmen” and “Gospel Truth.”
“It’s thrilling to me because – had I been educated – my ambition was to write a story about Clinton Street poolroom in that era, had I had the ability,” Filia said. “And then, right in my lap, was Russell Shorto, my second cousin, who did it. Isn’t that amazing?”
“Smalltime” was released by W.W. Norton in February.
“Johnstown’s still buzzing about this book,” Johnstown Area Heritage Association President and CEO Richard Burkert said.
Burkert said the book “evokes a real nostalgia for the times when Johnstown was a booming mill town, and everybody spent their time downtown. Movie theaters ran all day long. People went to bars and clubs and billiard halls. It was a more social age. There were more people, and the community was thriving.”
Mark Pasquerilla, CEO at Pasquerilla Enterprises, which owns the local Holiday Inn, thinks the “Smalltime” story could reach an even larger audience in the future.
“It’s a great book, and I think someday it will be like ‘The Sopranos,’ one of those mini-series,” Pasquerilla said.
“People can’t get enough of those stories, and this is a real story. I think it’s got a good chance of being on Netflix someday.”