Home » Bookstores » What Went Wrong at St. Mark’s Bookshop

What Went Wrong at St. Mark’s Bookshop

16 February 2016

From The New Yorker:

A few days ago, a fifty-per-cent-off clearance-sale sign appeared in the window of St. Mark’s Bookshop’s modest storefront on East Third Street, and this time it is really the end. The long-struggling store owes as much as seventy thousand dollars in back rent to the city, plus significant sums to publishers and wholesale distributors. According to the New York State Department of Tax and Finance, it faces an open warrant due to almost thirty-five thousand dollars of unpaid sales tax. Bob Contant, the store’s only remaining owner, told me that the business’s accounts have been frozen thanks to a creditor’s lawsuit; an investor who came on briefly as C.F.O. has also sued the store. The local landlord and longtime St. Marks Place resident Charles Fitzgerald has cooked up a plan to start a new bookshop in the space, which he says would be viable if investors were willing to put up two hundred thousand dollars. Even if that plan comes to fruition, though, St. Mark’s Bookshop as we know it is officially going out of business. This week, friends dropped by to pay their respects, while bargain hunters streamed in to pick the shelves clean.

In a neighborhood that is wearily familiar with the closing of local fixtures (two recent blows were Sounds record store and De Robertis pastry shop), the demise of St. Mark’s Bookshop stands out as painfully, publicly prolonged—one former employee I spoke to compared it to “watching a puddle evaporate.” Founded at 13 St. Marks Place in 1977 by Contant, Terry McCoy, and three other men, the store in its heyday was a literary headquarters for punks, and an outpost for St. Mark’s Poetry Project poets. With its teeming critical theory and poetry sections, international-magazine and small-press offerings, and raft of chapbook consignments, the store was a polished jewel in the scuzzy crown of the East Village, the place where countless aspiring artists bought their first books by Bukowski or Ginsberg or Sartre. Smart if sometimes snooty clerks could talk your ear off about Roland Barthes; the zine collection was impeccably curated. Susan Willmarth, who worked at the store from 1988 to 2007, told me, “St. Mark’s did so well because it was on the Lower East Side when the Lower East Side became a real special place.”

By the late eighties, the store was facing financial and managerial troubles.

. . . .

In 1987, the store expanded to a space twice the size across the street, at 12 St. Marks Place, a building owned by Fitzgerald. They were undercapitalized for the move, and overestimated how much business they would do in the larger space. In 1989, on the brink of closure, they were bailed out by the publisher Bob Rodale, who put up two hundred and fifty thousand dollars and helped them negotiate with their creditors. Soon after, the shop was offered a fifteen-year lease by Cooper Union college at a below-market rate, in the ground floor of a dorm on Ninth Street and Third Avenue. For a time, St. Mark’s thrived in this new space and enjoyed another golden era, even outlasting the Barnes & Noble that stood at Astor Place from 1994 to 2007. But the 2008 economic crash sent the store back into turmoil. Since then various efforts to save the store have been made, attracting online donations and celebrity supporters like Salman Rushdie and Patti Smith. In 2011, after months of negotiation and a petition that garnered forty-four thousand signatures, Cooper Union agreed to reduce the rent. But none of it was enough to right the store’s finances.

In 2014, St. Mark’s moved to its fourth and current home, in a smaller city-owned storefront, where the rent was a quarter of what it had been at Cooper. An architecture firm renovated the store pro bono. But in this leaner new space the business has continued to limp along.

. . . .

 The Utah writer Christian Harrison, who in 2014 conducted a twenty-three-stop bookstore crawl of New York City, told me that St. Mark’s was the low point of his tour. “The man looked at me like I’d walked in on them planning a murder, and so I made my way to the far corner of the bookstore,” he said. “It’s not a large space, so I just tried to be very concentrated on browsing.” Benjamin George Friedman, who worked at the store between 1995 and 2014, told me, “You see a lot of complaining about how rude people were there. But in their defense it was a very demoralizing place to be. It was all day long having people come up to you wanting to talk about the situation—saying, basically, ‘So, I hear you’re dying of cancer.’ ”

. . . .

Champions of St. Mark’s remind us that it is one of the last living vestiges of the East Village’s punk history, a symbol of an older era of New York City life when cabs wouldn’t go east of Avenue A and apartments with hardwood floors could be rented for two hundred dollars a month. The bookshop has been a neighborhood standby for thirty-eight years, standing sentinel as generations of residents, not to mention full-fledged riots, passed before their windows. It is deeply depressing to see it fail, just as it was to see the closure of the nearby used bookstore Tompkins Square Books a decade ago.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker


11 Comments to “What Went Wrong at St. Mark’s Bookshop”

  1. In summery: things change.

  2. I loved the neighborhood. In the 80s St. Marks was a mecca for a teen looking for a big bite of alternative culture. For me that was comics, games, and movies. And why not get some cool clothes, $3 sunglasses, and get into a political argument on a street corner while you’re there grabbing a cheap, tasty meal?

    But with Sounds, Kim’s, and CBGB’s gone, I think the era was already long ended. And to be honest, the bookshop was never on my “must visit” list. Forbidden Planet only a few blocks away offering fantasy and sci-fi titles that you couldn’t get anywhere else.

    • Yeah, funny how the press doesn’t cry in their beer nearly as much over places like Forbidden Planet closing …

  3. I’m sorry. I don’t get it. Am I supposed to mourn because a business that was badly managed went under? Not gonna do it. I guess I was too long in the bankruptcy bizz.

    • “Smart if sometimes snooty clerks could talk your ear off about Roland Barthes; the zine collection was impeccably curated.”

      …to their tastes.
      Doesn’t sound like the curation matched customer preferences.
      And the snooty clerks?

      Just because you stock it doesn’t mean they will come.

      • [T]he zine collection was impeccably curated.

        Translation: They carried only the magazines I deigned to have others think I read. Nothing for the hoi polloi.

        I don’t want a magazine rack that is ‘impeccably curated’. I want it to include Aikido Today, Cross & Cockade, Der Spiegel (auf Deutsch), Interzone, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. And Reader’s Digest. I want a magazine collection so catholic that it spits catechism.

  4. Benjamin George Friedman, who worked at the store between 1995 and 2014, told me, “You see a lot of complaining about how rude people were there. But in their defense it was a very demoralizing place to be.

    Oh stop. You have no business expecting to retain customers if you’re rude to them. It doesn’t matter if lots of people are asking the same questions; it’s a different person each time so it’s not as if one person is out to get you. None of them need to have their heads bitten off. Sounds like you should have failed.

  5. “Snooty clerks.”
    “Overestimated how much business they would do.”

    The only surprising thing is that anyone is surprised this place is going out of business. Terrible business decisions + terrible customer service = bankruptcy. Bookstores are not exempt from the rules of capitalism.

    “Which he says would be viable if investors were willing to put up two hundred thousand dollars.”

    No investors should pour any more money down this particular rat hole. That $200K would do far more good if donated to a literacy charity, a museum, a school or any other worthy cause.

    • But…but…but…
      Bookstores *should* be exempt!!
      Community! Warm, fuzzy feelings! Airport newstands!

      And the NYT and the Guardian love them!

      Even Mikey loves them!

  6. It must be a tiny regionalism inflated by media attn, this bkstore St. Marks. I mourn the loss of Chavez record store in the town I grew up in, where you could go into the different glass front rooms and play vinyl before buying. But when the Chavez family closed the venerable old place [housed in an actual house], I guess the N. Yorker missed the entire story.Unlike ‘Snoot n’ Snotty’ at St. Mark’s, instead at Chavie’s– the old grandpa might bring you in some peaches from their trees outback, the peaches still hot from the sun. If he liked you extra much, he’d try to give you a whole little bushel of fresh picked peaches for the family. He’d say, Here here, take take, we got more than we can use.

    Sometimes the people are better than the books/ music.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.