Thursday, February 18, 2016

Looking to carry on the legacy of St. Mark's Bookshop

The other night, I stopped by St. Mark's Bookshop, where the cash-only, 50-percent-off clearance sale continues here on East Third Street between Avenue A and First Avenue.

To some surprise, the store still has items on the shelves ... and the recent visits haven't been quite as depressing as anticipated. (Less like a funeral and more like a co-worker's going-away luncheon.) A few curiosities remain two weeks after the last-ditch effort began at the beleaguered shop.

So in case you have travel plans to Iraq...

If you look long/hard enough, then there are a couple of decent titles left. (There's a copy of Thomas Hardy's "Mayor of Casterbridge" that will be $3 and change after the discount. As an example.)

Anyway, by now you probably know what the store is up against: A mountain of debt, including back rent, fees to publishers and wholesale distributors... not to mention unpaid sales tax.

For more background, you can read recent posts at DNAinfo ... Bedford + Bowery ... and at The New Yorker, Ada Calhoun wrote a piece published last Friday titled "What went wrong at St. Mark's Bookshop." (Spoiler: A lot.)

Even the store's most ardent supporters have said that this is truly the end for the the Bookshop (or that this should truly be the end...), on its fourth location since opening on St. Mark's Place in 1977.

I haven't heard when the shop might actually close for good. When a patron asked the other night how much longer they'd remain open at 136 E. Third St., owner Bob Contant said "I don't know."

Meanwhile, as you may have read (The Awl and Jeremiah's Vanishing New York), there continues to be a movement afoot to keep a new bookstore like St. Mark's Bookshop in the East Village ... a counterpart to crucial used shops like Mast on Avenue A and East Village Books on St. Mark's Place.

Rafael Khalid, a Brooklyn resident and bookstore lover, and longtime St. Mark's Place resident Charles Fitzgerald (once the landlord of St. Mark's Bookshop), have been working to raise money for such an endeavor.

Khalid answered a few questions on his involvement and hopes for a new bookstore in the East Village:

Why did you get involved in helping St. Mark’s Bookshop?

When I first moved to NYC, a friend introduced me to St. Mark's Bookshop. It became my favorite bookstore. I felt I could make a difference in the community and help my favorite bookstore at the same time. I joined a committee of 13 friends of St. Mark's Bookshop that volunteered to help the store survive and continue. I was asked to lead the effort and continued getting results (like moving to a new location).

What is your current plan?

I have given everything I have to save and help St. Mark's Bookshop. But now, the plan is to raise $200,000 for a new store that carries on the legacy of St. Mark's Bookshop. There will be a new management committee, new books, and new energy. But it will carry on the best traditions of St. Mark's Bookshop, like having any author put books on consignment at the store, giving local writers, poets, and activists a voice to be heard, and having a gathering place for the community.

I'm just a facilitator who gets things done. I would love to partner with a local indie bookstore to complete this vision. Then I can move onto helping other bookstores and literary projects.

The store has been holding a clearance sale. Do you know what the next steps are for the store as it exists now?

I'm no longer involved with the store. Bob Contant has always been and always will be in charge of St. Mark's Bookshop as owner of the store. He all of the decisions and was responsible for all of the outcomes related to those decisions.

Why do you think it’s important to have a bookstore like St. Mark’s Bookshop in the neighborhood?

New bookstores give authors, poets, and writers a voice to be heard, not just in the community but in the world. Historically, people come from all over the world to the East Village to discover new talent that might not be heard or be able to breakthrough all the noise and clutter. My goal is to continue the legacy or best parts of St. Mark's Bookshop while adapting to today's environment.

Previously on EV Grieve:
Report: St. Mark's Bookshop prepping fundraiser ahead of possible move to Avenue A.

Is this the new home for the St. Mark's Bookshop?

Report: St. Mark's Bookshop signs lease for East 3rd Street space

Renovations at the future St. Mark's Bookshop on East 3rd Street

St. Mark's Bookshop seeking buyers with an ownership interest

Report: Last stand for St. Mark's Bookshop

Report: Latest woe for St. Mark's Bookshop — possible eviction

[Updated] These are likely the last days for St. Mark's Bookshop


Anonymous said...

I'm an avid reader, I've been around for nearly 10 years, and still have no idea why St. Marks got so much defense and love. It doesn't fall into the used books nitch like East Village and Alabaster, or the big box nitch like Strand. The only reason I ever went to St. Marks was if I was too lazy to walk to Strand, since they have the same sort of books.

I'm honestly fishing for an explanation - maybe a long time ago it was more than what it was over the last decade.

blue glass said...

what made (past tense) st. marks bookstore special: when they opened the wide-range of books they sold; the sales they had; the interaction between staff and customer; in a time when the 4th avenue book stores flourished and everyone read.

Anonymous said...

@8:48 (bg) Exactly. Plus...fantastic periodicals section...and a sense that poets were extra special...

nygrump said...

people are too busy masturbating with their little surveillance devices to read and think anymore. People are shameless, sitting in public holding their hard device, touching it, touching it, rubbing their fingers again and again on the smooth hard surface, STROKING the smooth surface, over and over
getting self-directed pleasure. How can we trick the population into carrying and paying for surveillance devices? We'll let them make phone calls with it. And the slaves lined up...the slaves even steal the surveillance devices from each other!

Anonymous said...

McNally Jackson seems to be doing pretty well selling new books, no idea why St Marks is doing so poorly, especially after its crowdfunding campaigns. Ciao St Marks.

Anonymous said...

First the Awl piece and now Ada's. It really shows that being a curmudgeon about life can be colorful, but doesn't pay the bills. This bookstore got a lot of help over the years. A LOT. But when even the CFO/Investor leaves, you know it's an issue.

I also see how the phrasing is changing from "We're going t reinvent St Marks Bookstore" to "We want to make sure A (as in any) bookstore is here in the EV."

I now feel pity. All these opportunities to enact change and just flat out refusal.

Anonymous said...

This is not a case of greedy landlord forcing a mom and pop out of business but small business which is operated by a person(s) which do not apparently know how to appeal to it's customers any longer and unable to attract new ones. As can only assume new management might be more tuned into what makes a bookstore tick in the year 2016 in a drastically changed EV. When a deli or a shoe repair stores goes belly up there is never the fuss that this store got continually during its long slow death. Is it the romance and or nostalgia of books that has everyone worked up? I say let this space go towards a new business which will hopefully bring a product or service to our neighborhood (no chain) and let this book store go away.

Anonymous said...

Is this a time to bring up the ghost of 8th Street -- Eight Street Book Shop? My favorite, all time, it was like going "Uptown" to the very gritty, funky, poetic East Side Bookstore. And the two entrepreneurs who are running St. Mark's now pickaxed East Side into its premature grave. So should we mourn St. Mark's, and hope for a simulacrum? Well, to be theoretical . . . . no.

Anonymous said...

This says everything:

"Bob Contant has always been and always will be in charge of St. Mark's Bookshop as owner of the store. He made of the all of the decisions and was responsible for all of the outcomes related to those decisions."

Anonymous said...

This just really sounds like poor management... It's sad to lose the store, for sure, and but at some point, someone made the decision to dive deeper and deeper into debt.

I wonder if bookstore based on principles like a food co-op would be successful? Hmm..

Anonymous said...

In answer to the first question - essentially, what was so special about St. Mark's Books - to me, it was a place where I found books that I loved that I didn't find anywhere else. Obviously many places carry the same books, and you can get anything on Amazon, but the beauty of a good bookstore is that it helps you through the mountain of stuff that is published to find particular books and authors that are special and that you would never have found without them. And that is what St. Marks did for me - starting with leading me to Don Delillo in the early '80s, before he became relatively well known via White Noise, as well as highlighting fiction from around the world, including the now well-known Latin American authors, but also a great novel I found there once from a Hungarian author. That is what I will miss. The idea that I can walk in the door there and find something that I will like and that I likely wouldn't have found anywhere else.

cmarrtyy said...

What legacy are you talking about? Bad management? Snarky service? Clarify please.

Gojira said...

What I find very interesting is that, despite the near-constant thrum of customer complaints about the arrogance and solipsism of his staff, it never seems to have occurred to Mr. Conant to simply make them either shape up or ship out. I don't see where he ever even addressed the issue, and I'm sure he was well-aware of the deeply negative feelings his employees' attitudes engendered. Perhaps he thought that, as with the legendary Lindy's waiters of yore, people expected and welcomed rudeness as part of the "experience", but it's a lot easier to swallow being treated like an idiot with a mouthful of cheesecake than with a book.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 4:20 ... I can agree that is was a great place for many things, but reading these interviews with the owners and about the space, you can see they let this happen, which makes it sadder.

"What about a cafe?" no.
"What about used books?" No.
"What about performance/community space?" No. But give me money to survive!

It really is a shame.

Anonymous said...

Gojira, There's an old saying that I think applies here: The fish rots from the head down.

Anonymous said...

Can someone who knows the history provide detail on the relationship between East Side Books (before my time) and SMB plus how/when exactly East Side went under? Know there was a prosecution over selling Crumb or similar commix but not clear if that did them in or not. Anon 1:13: I do remember Eighth Street Books and still miss that rightly legendary shop.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to see any independent bookstore go under, though I must admit that my go-to has been Bluestockings on the LESser side of East Houston. That's an example of a store that's changed with the times in terms of offering a cafe, used books, and a community/performance space, which means it has something that the online booksellers can't provide. It also specializes in a niche that has few if any competitors in the area, something that any new replacement for SMB should consider (but a different niche).

Anonymous said...

Who really knows all the inner workings of why and what, regardless, it's still sad to lose a store and
bookstores are great places.

Anonymous said...

Even at half price, no one is buying Bob Holman's book.

Anonymous said...

Why cling to an old legacy, especially one that ended so dubiously and ignominiously. Start anew.

Anonymous said...

Wow no love for Mercer Street Books & Records? C'mon folks - hit it. It's still there and I think will always be there if he owner owns the building or part of it.