Business of the Month: St. Mark’s Bookshop, 136 East 3rd Street
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“New York is a book town, and people do buy books rather than read them online, people do both.”
St. Mark’s Bookshop has been a part of the East Village since the 1970s. Unlike the large chain stores we are accustomed to now, St. Mark’s specializes in small and independent press, periodicals and journals. Though it has moved over the years, St. Mark’s has managed to remain a presence within the East Village, serving students at the local universities as well as maintaining a stock that has attracted people from all over the world to their shelves. Recently, GVSHP was able to talk with Bob Contant, one of the original founders and still a current employee at the store, to talk about its beginnings, what sets it apart from other bookstores in the area, and why now more than ever they need the public’s support.
Bob explained that the store was founded because the original owners were working for another bookstore in the Village at the time, yet saw they could run their own without the presence of an absentee owner.
“There were actually 5 of us in 1977; we all worked in a bookstore called the East Side Bookstore, which was on St. Mark’s Place between Second and Third. Its claim to fame is that it was it sold all the books in the Whole Earth catalog and also sold Zapp Comics. It was a small store and prior to being East Side Bookstore it was the Intergalactic Trading Post, so it was a holdover from the hippy days. We worked together for maybe three or four years, there was a group of us there, and there was an absentee owner, and he would come in once a month and sign checks and that would be it. After we got to know each other we became friends, we decided, ‘why don’t we do this for ourselves? Why are we doing it for someone who is really not involved in the store?’”
They rented a storefront on St. Mark’s Place, where for the first couple of years the owners worked off “sweat equity.”
“We found a storefront in the same block, number 13 St. Mark’s Place, it was rented to us for 375 dollars a month. We basically started our store with ‘sweat equity,’ none of us took any money from the store, we all had other jobs. There were five of us and we owned it equally. It took us about two or three years before we began to make some kind of a profit. We acquired the basement as well as the ground floor so we almost doubled our size and we had about 1000 square feet and it was packed to the gills with books and periodicals.”
What set St. Mark’s apart from other bookstores at the time was their wide range of books on critical theory, especially Post-Structuralism.
“Critical theory was sweeping academia; French philosophers such as Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault were becoming extremely popular, so we focused on Post-Structuralist philosophy as a niche because there were so many book stores downtown in those days. Just on 8th Street alone, between 2nd Avenue and 6th Avenue there were about eight book stores. Book stores in New York were like Starbucks are now, they were everywhere. To set ourselves apart, we focused on Post-Structuralist philosophy, we dedicated a section to it, and we developed a reputation for having critical theory books, which drew people from all over.”
In the 1990’s, Cooper Union solicited St. Mark’s to be their commercial tenant in one of their 3rd Avenue buildings, offering a very reasonable rent and a 15 year lease. However, as mismanagement caused internal restructuring within the institution, these changes had an impact on the bookstore as well.
“Cooper Union was building its dormitory building on the corner of 3rd Avenue and 9th [Street], and they solicited us to be their commercial tenant, and offered us a 15 year lease and a reduction in the rent we were paying. So we moved in, and we had a very healthy relationship with Cooper Union for the extent of the lease. Then maybe 5 years ago, the administration changed at CU and the people who we knew moved on. They weren’t there anymore and taking over was a group that was basically interested in real estate. They were a disaster, not only for the book store but for CU itself; they charged students tuition, which was in violation of CU’s charter, and they built the building without having a sponsor so it put them in serious debt. Basically they mismanaged what they inherited to the extent that the Attorney General’s office investigated them for financial reasons. As a result, they got us out by raising our rent. They wanted double what we were paying, we were paying in the neighborhood of $20,000/month in rent and they wanted over $40,000/month, we couldn’t afford it. Nobody could.”
A campaign was launched and spearheaded by the Cooper Square Committee to save St. Mark’s Bookshop and, while successful in reducing the rent, it was still too much for the small bookstore to afford. They eventually ended up finding a space at 136 east 3rd Street near Avenue A, in the historic (and landmarked) First Houses, where they remain today, surviving but no longer thriving as they once did.
“It took us quite a while to find a space. We found the space we’re in now on 3rd Street and Avenue A, and it’s extremely reasonable rent, but it’s got a marginal location. For people who visited our old store on 3rd Avenue, that was ideal. It was a main drag, it was close to the subways, it was close to CU, NYU, and the New School. Now we’re in a neighborhood and while it’s nice to be in a neighborhood we don’t have the kind of business that we had then, although we’re smaller and we have less staff we don’t need the same level of business to survive, but we do need to be restocked.”
St. Marks’s biggest challenge today is restocking their store. Back in December, they started a GoFundMe campaign to try and raise money to obtain new stock. You can support the store’s campaign, and help one of the few Village entities left that supports local and independent publishing and writers.
Bob further explains what makes this store so special and unique compared to the others in the neighborhood:
“We have a lot of small press, both literature and poetry. We have an extremely wide range of periodicals and journals, probably the biggest selection in the city. That includes almost every literary journal being published, plus a lot of other areas including music and fashion and art. We do have a clientele that keeps coming back every month to get the new issue of whatever it is, so there’s that that keeps us current. We try and pick up on the more interesting titles that are kind of below the radar but are very popular with our clientele.”
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