Wednesday, September 14, 2011

What kind of neighbor will Cooper Union be after today?

As you likely know, the owners of St. Mark's Bookshop will meet today with Theresa C. Westcott, Cooper Union's Vice President of Finance, Adminstration, and Treasury, to negotiate a rent reduction, as Runnin' Scared noted on Monday. Co-owner Bob Contant is aiming for a $5,000/month reduction, but says the new administration has not been "particularly sympathetic." They have struggled to pay the market rate that Cooper Union set at $20,000.

There's plenty of commentary on the matter. Jeremiah Moss writes an Open Letter to Cooper Union today at Vanishing New York. He outlines how Cooper Union has helped usher in "a tsunami of hyper-gentrification," from the Bowery Bar to the glassy hell of 1 Astor Place to the destruction of 35 Cooper Square.

Per Jeremiah:

If St. Mark's Books is forced to close due to unyielding rent, whatever business moves into their space at 31 Third Avenue will be boycotted and protested by the thousands of people who read this blog and all the blogs connected to it. Nothing will thrive there--no bank, no cupcake shop, no kitten adoption center.

Meanwhile, Rob at Save the Lower East Side has more pointed commentary.

Peter Cooper himself was all about giving back to the community. Peter must have long ago tired of spinning in his grave over what has become of his life's dream, free higher education for the working class. How many ways can Cooper Union spell "betrayal"?

He goes on to wonder if the neighborhood even deserves the bookshop.

The NYU students have their own bookstore, filled with all the books they need and more than they can handle. As for the rest of the neighborhood, this place is a youth destination for children of means, not an intellectual or countercultural destination anymore. It's heart is commerce now, not anarchy. Freedom must be purchased, and it exacts many prices.

And you know about the petition to save St. Mark's Bookshop. It's here.

Meanwhile, there was a robust discussion on the topic on the last EVG post here.

[Photo via John Roca the Daily News. Read their article here.]


Joe said...

he McDonalds next door to St. Mark's Bookshop was formerly the Anarchy Cafe. Make of that what you will.

Anonymous said...

Who does Cooper Union answer to? Who are these people who run it, and how did they get their positions? Curious. Any info would be appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Oh, dear,
I am sorry to read Rob's comments. I typically don't go public on the cusp of an issue such as this. Can we actually concern ourselves with deserving?
Yes, there are/were many diligent, blades into plough share folk in the east village 9and really st. marks books is an annex of east village, if you will, always think of it as astor place or Cooper Union)
I'm wasted with the lack of oxygen in the once busy body world of making it happen, keeping it real in the lower east side ( a more general inclusionary term)
Think of it. the only other bookstore equal to possibility of St Marks is on the north side of union square.
I am not a NYU student. I enjoy the selection St.M's provides and I have made many purchases there. Most of those were for my children.
Peter Cooper's legacy is to be regarded as example.
With the malling of the east village, and the eventual Times Squaring of Canal Street, we will be entering into a pre Blade Runner scenario.

All else that will be needed are a few more skyscrapers and constant rain.

Almost there

Anonymous said...

Anonymous might want to read the wikipedia entry for Cooper Union:

Cooper Union trustees:

Cooper Union honchos:

For what it's worth, compared to NYU, I'm very happy to have Cooper Union as a neighbor. The kids and faculty tend to be pretty good citizens and the school does make an effort to give back to the community--through affordable and quite lively continuing education classes and open/free educational events, as well as significant programs for NYC school kids that run all year. Also, it's worth noting that while, yes, Cooper has contributed to gentrification in the area, their intentions and plans are mostly above board and take into account community concerns. (Think of all those NYU dorms that were approved to be one something else and then viola! the suddenly become NYU dorms. That kind of stuff doesn't seem to happen with Cooper. Cooper doesn't have to fund the NYT coverage of the EV to get reasonable press, NYU does.)

That said, in this case, I think it's worth leaning on Cooper to help out with St. Mark's Bookstore. Yes, St. Mark's is private concern but I think they've run a better bookstore over the years than Cooper could run and, well, call me old-fashioned but I think bookstores can be educational and so keeping them going is a (small) part of Cooper's overall mission.

Joe said...

I understand the 'preservation of the neighborhood culture' stance, but a $5000 reduction is only putting gauze on a gunshot wound.

The truth is, the small-bookstore (even the big-chain bookstore!) industry is suffering, and further reductions in rent would likely be necessary in the not too distant future. St. Mark's Bookshop should recognize this and perhaps cut its loses now?

I feel very bad for the bookstore and the EVill's loss, but when will the rent need to drop to $10k, then $5k for the Bookshop to stay aloft?

Jeremiah Moss said...

i'm amazed by the comments to the St. Mark's story, here and elsewhere, in which people seem so casual about the death of books and bookstores. it stuns me, really. are there truly so many people, and in New York City, who would not miss bookstores and books?

until the Kindle became popular, no one said "oh well, to hell with books." and that was only in the past 2 years!

do people really give up on a centuries-old, beloved and integral tool/artwork/etc. in so short a time?

what planet are we on?

Caleo said...

Jeremiah, it's the planet where the flock goes in whatever direction the Shepherd tells it to go.
Most people don't really think about these issues, they simply react. And the reaction is usually to follow the herd.
In this case following the herd means buying into whatever new gadget Advertising is telling people will fill the gaping hole in their blighted souls.
People just want to belong, they don't question where it's all headed. Even if it's headed over a cliff.

Jeremiah Moss said...

true Caleo. there is something about the current moment in time, it seems people are more and more willing--and eager--to hand their minds and selves over to a more powerful "authority" (Apple, Amazon, Marc Jacobs, etc.)

i understand the need to belong, which is very human, but is it so frightening to also think for oneself? of course, books help people to exercise their thinking--so they have to be destroyed.

HippieChick said...

"Nothing will thrive there--no bank, no cupcake shop, no kitten adoption center."

Ha! Hex them into the middle of next year! Carthago delenda est!

Anonymous said...

I am sure that they can downsize and NYU would be more than happy to give them a reduced rent in one of the long vacant storefronts in the dorms along third avenue.

sure, that will happen

Anonymous said...

I sincerely hope that the owners of St. Mark's Books DO NOT cut their losses, what a loss that would be. I'm sure they are weary and worn but please please don't give up!

Yes, the reduction in rent is just a band-aid. What's more, the modest $5K rent reduction DOWN to $15K, while insurmountable by an independent bookstore, is mere lint in the pockets of Cooper Union. Why continue to associate with them? The original store was way cooler and simpler, with a welcoming entryway, unlike the poorly designed pee smelling alcove of the current $20K Space.

Of the over 24,000 people who signed the petition I'm sure someone has a connection somewhere to a cheaper store front. Moving is a hassle, but if it comes to that let's pull together and keep St. Mark's Books alive.

To the owners, Terry McCoy & Bob Contant, please let the community know what type of help would be most appreciated...with the astronomical rent you are paying it seems an increase in sales is only part of the answer.

Caleo said...

I know for a fact that there are commercial spaces in the EV available for half of what St. Marks is currently paying. It would require some downsizing and shelf crunching, but that's what the original space looked like anyhow.
Is it really going to be Cooper Union or nothing ?

Anonymous said...

How is signing a petition going to lower the rent of a bookshop?
It's doing yoga for peace.

Apparently, they can't afford the space. Find a a smaller one, pay less and move on.

Books are a luxury item. They take a long time to read. They cost a lot to publish and a lot to print.
They are a bitch to pack when you move.

As an information professional, I use the NYPL. With the current state of the economy, most people I know do. It's a pre-paid service, by US tax payers.

Anonymous said...

... the small-bookstore (even the big-chain bookstore!) industry is suffering...

Hmmm, though the published stats are a little fuzzy, the general trend is: little stores are hurting about the same as print publishing in general, limping along but still going; big stores are really hurting and print sales at big stores are dropping faster than the industry at large. Think about it, perhaps a dozen little bookstore have opened just in NYC over the last ten years. Not all of them will make it and some of them are quite small but places like, say, Book Culture, Brownstone, Dessert Island, BookMark, McNally-Jackson, and so on are opening faster than they are closing. (It's a different story for used book stores, most of those have, yes, been killed by the internets. There are some exceptions, however, Mast books and Dashwood in the EV, for example.)

I'm with Jeremiah, I don't want to "give up on a centuries-old, beloved and integral tool" and so if St. Mark's needs a bit of subsidy to keep going, I'm okay with that. If an educational institution wants to help St. Mark's, well, yes, that's part of their mission. I'd argue that just stocking useful books is educational but, of course, many bookstores go beyond that and sponsor all kinds of free readings, events, etc. Take McNally-Jackson, in Soho, for example. They have nearly daily readings by a remarkable assortment of authors. Sure, they do it, in part, to sell books but their commitment to readings rivals say, the entire NYPL, or NYU, or whoever. It's perhaps telling that a little bookstore, with no public support, is one of our most significant downtown cultural institutions but, well, it's also an argument for supporting good bookstores.

Jeremiah Moss said...

if they can move into a new space in the neighborhood, at lower rent, and not be beholden to Cooper, great.

but we've seen bookstores close due to rent, reopen elsewhere, and then they shutter within a year or so. it's risky to move.

and books are a problem because they "take a long time to read"??? makes me ashamed that i write a blog, contributing to the world something that only takes (if my analytics are right) an average of 5 seconds to read.

Anonymous said...

Books are a luxury item. Meaning, you read when you have spare time. Reading takes a while to digest. Few people have the extra time to read books.

Caleo said...

Anon. 8:41- Sorry, but that's nonsense.
I've worked 10 hour a day jobs, not including commute, and always had time to read.
You're just trying to rationalize and excuse the closing of bookstores.
If you don't want to make time to read, fine, but don't tell me most people can't find the time.
Most people are simply too lazy to make the time.
They would rather sit in front of the boob tube/PC.

starzstylista said...

I have lived on Saint Marks Place going on 34 years now. The bookshop has been my neighbor for that long.

When I moved there there were bookstores up and down 4th Avenue to 14th, East and West from Ave B to Broadway/6 ave on Saint Marks, Astor Place and 8th Street.

I haven't signed the petition, and I am not sure I will. Until the bookstore became severely economically compromised, about 2000 or so, the owners and employees were as dickish as you could imagine. Intellectual snobs of the worst sort. Anyone that did not fit their postmodern, elite, eurointellectual model of snobbery was made to feel decidedly uncomfortable.

Luckily, there were plenty other places (and better stocked) bookstores to choose from. When they moved into these spanking new digs at Cooper Union most of us old lefties smirked. It's just sort of type of professional academic crowd with whom they felt most comfortable. Now, even this elite (albeit publicly minded) institution is stabbing them in the back. Who cares really?

Let them move into a smaller store on 9th Street or some less pleasant subterranean venue further east. The bookstore on Saint Marks between 1st & A does not exhibit such snobbishness, and I find it infinitely more comfortable. Consider for a moment for whom you are petitioning.

I hope there is as much energetic outcry come the next presidential election. It's going to a doozy of a fight.

starzstylista said...

One final comment, I enjoy Jeremiah's blog very much. And, over the past 20 years, I have seen so much that was wonderful in the East Village die, but it takes a very special kind of hubris to threaten that anything in the spot will not thrive because of some blogs.

I have seen all the gentrification wars. I have seen people beaten up, thrown out, chained to fences, picket and petition in protest. That did little to slow up what happened. To think that a petition and these blogs have that much influence is sadly misguided. Sadly misguided. (And to save a private concern, ridiculous - maybe the owners could take a reduction in salary? They could save money that way. Mortgage their homes? Also a possibility.)

To threaten a boycott for this store is a laughable and ludicrously hollow threat, and I am embarrassed for Jeremiah.

Anonymous said... That's why bookstores can't make it. Don't go blaming anyone else. Books are expensive. People go to places like St Marks B.S. , browse, figure out what they'd like to buy, go home and order the book used on Amazon for 2/3 the price . End of discussion. Gentrification, yuppies, yunnies, and landlords are not to be blamed for this story.

Anonymous said...

For all those advocating for cold-blooded capitalism here, I should say when you have an organization with a LONG history of altruism like Cooper Union, it makes it especially valid to question their methods here.

Why aren't all you self-proclaimed cold-hearted capitalists blasting Cooper Union for giving their student body a free education? The school would probably make a hell of a lot more money if they started charging the students NYU-level tuition then by giving the bookstore a break on their rent.

Shocking as it may seem, it does not ALWAYS have to be about greed.

Anonymous said...

I love to read, and I support local bookstores, but I haven't been a regular at St. Mark's for at least two years now. On a practical level, the selection of books is quite small and limited. They have space to carry many more titles. And there isn't a neighborhood vibe here. It isn't a friendly place you want to come into. In the end, it is a business, and if they can't make more money by better serving customers, then it is time for them to go.

Ken from Ken's Kitchen said...

Almost 2 years ago, Councilman Robert Jackson tried to introduce a bill supported by small-business owners called the Small Business Survival Act that would have required disputes like St Mark's Bookshop and CU to be resolved through a third party. (Specifically, it would have required binding arbitration between St Marks Bookshop and CU when the two couldn't agree on the price and terms of a new lease. Arbitration is common in contract disputes). 30 of 51 Council members supported it, but Speaker Quinn wouldn't allow it to come for a vote, probably so as not to embarrass her boss, Mike Bloomberg who for sure would have vetoed it.

Our next election for mayor is gonna be crucial for a whole bunch of survival/real estate-related reasons. It was largely real estate who were responsible for Bloomberg's 3rd term...

nygrump said...

St Marks book isn't "small and limited" it is focused and selective. So you might no find the Stephen King bibliography on the shelf here but I will find 10 titles from Paul Virilio. I'm sorry if someone like 8:41 doesn't understand why that is important. Books are not a luxury item, they are a key to civilization, which as you see in the book The Road is more fragile than tiffany glass.

Anonymous said...

To the previous posters: I am all for specialty book stores (I am a big of Bluestockings, for example, and they serve the community well), but you can't survive in a space as expensive as St. Mark's when you're serving such a small niche. It's just not practical from a business perspective. There is no reason why they couldn't serve more of the community by offering a wider range of reading material. They have the space. I am going to see if they would be open to suggestions as well as consulting from a design friend of mine as to how they could better utilize the space they have.

Anonymous said...

You know what are luxury items? cupcakes, fro-yos, artisanal cocktails and other foodie food, and manolo blahnicks, etc. How about sacrificing some of those and buy a book instead. all about balance. Then again, those who purchases the aforementioned luxury items, probably don't read, and if they do, they read them in their Kindle, Ipads, and other e-readers.

starzstylista said...

Whether one calls the SMB selection focused and selective or small and limited, there really is no reason then for an entire community to support this private concern. It does not serve the community.

Consider for example another store, a boutique store, which is charming but only carries say hand-sewn baby clothes or handmade furniture. Is that business a worthy concern to support by petition and boycott?

SMB is more akin to a upscale boutique - consider its wares, consider its market - than a business serving the community. I would be far more inclined to support a shoemaker, pharmacy, vet or small grocery, particularly if the owners lived in the neighborhood.

Personally, I think Saint Marks Books ought to stay in the neighborhood, but they have no "entitlement" to that spot. Moreover, while they may not have to carry Stephen King - who is hardly the worst example of popular authorship - they might consider being a little less focused in the sort of self absorbed way a doctoral candidate with a highly arcane interest is.

Anonymous said...

years of being in the EV, and SMB do not serve the community. the authors, artists, poets that regularly hung out there did not serve them? so who is deserving of that spot? will a shoemaker, pharmacy, vet or small grocery be able to afford the rent?

this is much more about self-absorbed intellectual elite bookshop trying to stay in that spot. this is about how Cooper Union corporatizing the neighborhood, which was the opposite of Peter Cooper's vision. i'm sorry that the staff at SMB had snubbed you at one point, but that staff most likely had been fired or laid-off, to cut cost. if you do not want to patronize or sign the petition, that's fine. but wanting them to get out of the spot,w hich is basically taking the side of Copper Union, is laughable and ludicrously hollow.

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with a lot of the people here who are suggesting that SMBs just move, or that they are serving only a fringe group of intellectuals. For starters, they are the only bookstore in New York that has a constantly changing and wonderful selection of arts and literature remainders that you cannot find anywhere else. And those books are all often under $10. In addition, they have chapbooks, odd periodicals, limited runs, and more. The strength of that bookstore is the quality of their inventory. They simply know good books. It's readers and book lovers serving readers and book lovers. I could go in there and have no problem finding $500 in books that I'd love to read. Only problem is, I don't have $500. Yeah, let's remake NYC for only the wealthy and it will become the most boring non-dynamic place on the map. It seems to me there has to be a compromise here. If 30,000 New Yorkers are willing to sign, perhaps a third or half of them will commit to buying more books. Too bad most of the readers I know are now on food stamps and counting their pennies for (overpriced) rent.

starzstylista said...

Anon 3:51

I have never been snubbed by anyone at Saint Marks Books, in fact quite the contrary. Historically, the employees have been my peers and friends. Moreover, my background puts right within the the bookstore's market. Moreover, I do go buy there to buy books, because it is close by and I do support independent businesses. It would be the worst of arguments if my opinion was based on personal grudge. No.

The point is that the argument the bookstore and others are making is an argument of entitlement. I don't find that persuasive whoever is making it. There are plenty of other spots, plenty of other solutions other than making this a socio-political issue. If it is a socio-political issue it is thin gruel indeed.

Anonymous said...

I think another issue that St. Mark's has no control over is a lot of us who used to be regulars years ago can't afford to buy as many new books as we did back in the day when our rents were cheaper and food didn't cost as much. Buying a book nowadays is a luxury for me and I have to buy them used or better still get them as hand me downs. I can't remember the last time I bought a new book.