Friday, August 31, 2012

What Next for St. Mark's Bookshop?

St. Mark's Bookshop exterior

Almost two weeks ago, St. Mark's Bookshop, the 35-year-old independent East Village and New York City treasure that was nearly ousted from its home last year, met its crowd-sourcing goal on Lucky Ant, and raised the $23,000 it was seeking to show potential landlords that it did have the money for a down-payment on a new lease. (According to the Lucky Ant page, the store has now raised about $28,000.) It will be vacating its old home, no matter what.

The current landlord, The Cooper Union, has joined the ranks of Manhattan's rapacious speculators, and will be raising the bookshop's monthly rent to that outrageous $23,000 level, meaning the store would have to generate $276,000 in yearly sales just to pay the rent, all other costs--payroll and benefits, book orders, utilities, insurance, etc.--notwithstanding.  That a private, not-for-profit educational institution would be doing this to a long-time cultural landmark that benefits not only general readers but its own faculty and students is appalling, but appeals to The Cooper Union apparently have gone nowhere, and so St. Mark's must find a new home, lest it suffer the fate of so many other local independent booksellers, like The Gotham Book Mart, Christopher Street Books, A Different Light, and University Place Bookstore, to name just a few, that exist now as bookmarks in a future literary history of the city.

All of the communication I've received from St. Mark's has been quite appreciative of patrons' and the larger community's support, and suggested to me, at least, that things perhaps weren't so bleak. This past weekend and then again earlier in the week I had to grab some books for my classes, and what I saw in the store contradicted this somewhat, or at least complicated the picture. When I stopped in on the weekend, there was some traffic, but nothing close to what I imagined given the enthusiasm I'd seen online for the store. Rows of shelves stood stripped bare of books, some sections, like fiction, critical studies, and philosophy particularly denuded. Then when I met up with a friend there before lunch this week, it was equally sepulchral, which led me to ask one of the staff members about the move, and she politely told me that the situation was "up in the air," she didn't know what was coming, and that the store would be in contact with its supporters.

I snapped a few pictures of the moribund space. I hope the owners can find a new, affordable spot and long-term lease soon, though I know it will be very--no, extremely--difficult given the realities of Manhattan real estate these days. But the St. Mark's Bookshop has long been a vital repository and a cultural icon, and its loss would be a serious blow to the intellectual and creative ecology of New York; Manhattan may be able to thrive economically on luxury condo buildings and hotels, ultra-elite boutiques and boîtes, and a service industry catering to the 1%, but it will be a drastically different place from what it has been for the preceding 300 years, becoming an overstuffed Dubai with the memory of its once vibrantly diverse intellectual and creative past but a waning fragrance for those passing through. If you haven't already offered financial support to St. Mark's, please consider doing so at the Lucky Ant link above, or sending them moral support via

In the front door window, St. Mark's Bookshop
In the front door

Empty shelves in St. Mark's Bookshop
Where once stood full shelves of critical studies books

Empty fiction shelves, St. Mark's Bookshop
Part of the fiction section

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