“There are too many good bookstores in Brooklyn,” Bob Contant said. Contant is one of two co-owners of St. Mark’s Bookshop, the embattled last independent bookstore standing in the East Village. He was explaining to me why he wouldn’t consider a move to what’s generally deemed New York’s most literary borough. “They don’t need another one. What we’ve always focused on in terms of subjects areas and specialties, it’s really in the East Village. We have an anarchist section, which most stores don’t. There’s still remnants of politics and poetry — we focus on both. There’s still a home for that here.”
But that home is in crisis, and has been for two and a half years. The problems began in the fall of 2011, when news spread that the bookstore — beloved for its literary and artistic offerings, which often leans towards the obscure, esoteric, and DIY — was struggling to pay its $20,000/month rent. The bookstore approached its landlord, Cooper Union, asking for a $5,000 reduction, but the school refused. A petition was circulated, garnering more than 44,000 signatures, and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer stepped in to mediate. By the end of that year, St. Mark’s had a $5,000 monthly rent reduction and $7,500 in debt forgiven by the school. The bookstore, the literary community it represents, even Stringer, celebrated. “Every time we save a local bookstore we save a local community,” the borough president said at the time.
The victory was short-lived: the rent reduction was temporary. As St. Mark’s co-owner Terry McCoy explained to me, “It was a one-year reduction, and then it went back to the original escalations in the lease.” Which means St. Mark’s was once again left with a rent it couldn’t pay and the task of finding a new home, as well as the money with which to acquire said home.
“We’ve been burned twice,” Contant said, referring to the store’s attempts to move, always within the East Village. The first try involved a large space that would have been divided, with St. Mark’s taking part of it. “We went through a four-month lease negotiation, we submitted architect’s plans, they committed to doing landlord’s work, we were at the point of signing the lease, and then they rented to a party that was taking the whole space without saying anything to us. We really felt burned on that.”
The second attempt was a space on 12th Street. “This was holiday season not this past year but the year previous,” Contant said. “We were at the point of signing a lease there, and the landlord went on vacation during the holidays for three weeks. When he came back, he had sold the building to another party.”
A third scheme is currently in the works, but given the rocky history, Contant was reluctant to share details. He and McCoy have a lease in hand, for a city-owned space that’s smaller than their current home but seems “encouraging.” “There’s a lot of things up in the air, but nothing’s settled yet,” he said.
Another piece of the puzzle that remains unsettled is the store’s relationship with Cooper Union. Facing their own massive financial difficulties, Cooper’s board voted last month to charge students tuition for the first time in its 155-year history. It’s no wonder they want a tenant that can pay market price on St. Mark’s present space, which sits at the prominent corner of Stuyvesant Street and Third Avenue. Contant told me the bookshop is hoping to get “some financial aid” from Cooper to help with move, but negotiations are ongoing. Justin Harmon, vice president of communications at the school, wouldn’t speak to the substance of the conversations, saying only, “There’s been a lot of discussion. It’s a little bit hard to characterize. I know they’re hoping to identify a new location and in whatever we can be supportive of their ongoing success, we’d like to be able to do that.”
Some St. Mark’s supporters are critical of Cooper Union’s part in St. Mark’s plight. “What is the role of these education institutions?” asked, John Oakes, co-founder of OR Books. “What is the role of these huge nonprofits, like Cooper Union or NYU? Part of the role is to be good community participants, members of the community.” Oakes said he found it “doubly appalling” that the bookshop’s landlord is a college.
But Margarita Shalina, St. Mark’s small press buyer and events coordinator, stressed that Cooper had been “gentle and patient” in its dealings with the store over the past few years.
Presuming they do sign that lease on that promising new East Village location, Contant and McCoy still need to find a way to raise enough money to make the move. The shop held an online auction of rare books in December, but “that seemed to be a bust,” Contant said, making barely a dent in the “couple hundred thousand dollars” they need. To that end, they’ll be launching an Indiegogo campaign soon — not the first time they’ve turned to crowdfunding — and have also formed a Friends of St. Mark’s Bookshop Committee to brainstorm and implement other ideas. Spearheaded by Erica Hunt, a consultant who generally works with nonprofits (which St. Mark’s is not, although it’s obviously struggling to be profitable), the committee held its first meeting two weekends ago.
In a by-now familiar refrain, yet one that seems to sound truer each time it’s spoken, Contant lamented the uncertain future of many of the places that give New York City its character, not just the bookstores. “All kinds of small retail businesses are being forced out,” he said, giving the example of a shoe-repair place on 59th Street called Jim’s, “real professionals” who’ve been in their storefront for 82 years. As Contant told it, he was dropping off a pair of boots a few weeks ago when he noticed a petition to save Jim’s. He asked about the situation, and “the woman said, ‘Duane Reade wants to expand, and they’re offering our landlord more than we can afford to pay.’ The Duane Reade is enormous — what do they need another 500 feet for? It’s just heartbreaking. If it’s not Duane Reade, it’s a bank. The irony is, people don’t even use banks anymore. They just want to have the footprint in the city that’s totally dominant.”
And so, perhaps more urgently than ever, St. Mark’s must find a way to stay. “We’re committed to the East Village,” Contant said. “We’ve been here for 36 years. It’s our home.”