Robert Contant, owner of St. Mark's Bookshop
The St. Mark's Bookshop, a treasured literary collection near Astor Place, is no stranger to economic dips, bankruptcy scares and ultimate survival. The store, in operation in the East Village since the 1970s and once a haunt of Allen Ginsberg and William Boroughs, today finds itself once again on the precipice of shutting its doors. With a hefty $20,000-per-month rent, owners Robert Contant and Terry McCoy, along with a cadre of community members, politicians and even a celebrity, are petitioning their landlord, Cooper Union, to lower their rent by $5,000 in order to stay afloat.
You opened your bookstore in 1977 in a 600-square-foot space at 13 St. Marks with four other partners. What was the East Village like at that time?
Bob Contant: In 1977, the East Village was depressed. The hippie movement had died. There were a lot of acid causalities around. The Second Avenue subway was being constructed, so you had to cross the street on wood boards. There was very little life left in the neighborhood. It was a transitional period. This was the down time-within a year, the punk movement started. It originated here in the East Village.
The Ramones, Patti Smith, The Voidoids were all playing at CBGBs and getting enormous amounts of attention. As a result of the popularity of the music scene, there was an arts scene. Galleries were opened in apartments. It was a lively, do-it-yourself situation. The most notorious place was the St. Marks Baths, which was a gay bathhouse. It was a magnet and we were right across the street. All kinds of people were coming to the East Village, not only for the baths but also for the arts and music scene, and the bookstore benefited.
But you moved a few times before settling into your current location on Third Avenue, right?
We were at 13 [St. Mark's Place] for 10 years, then moved to 12 St. Mark's and then moved here in 1994.
When we moved from 13 to 12, we thought, "Our business will be substantially bigger." We were naïve business people. It cost a fortune to renovate and make the move. All of the sudden we were in debt to contractors?and to pay them took all the money that should have gone to publishers. Within three months, we were on the verge of going out of business. We couldn't get supplies. We had exhausted all of our lines of credit. Things are so different now. Then, people didn't have credit cards to speak of. It was 1989.
I went to high school with a woman who was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. She was the only media person I had contact with. I called her and explained our situation. She said she would have a reporter do a story. The story in the Wall Street Journal mentioned [Susan Sontag] shopped here.
The publisher Robert Rodale read the Journal story on a Thursday. He called the day the story appeared and said, "This sounds like the kind of store I would like." He flew in and met with us on Saturday and said he would like to help.
He loaned us a substantial [sum] with a financial plan that went with it. It wasn't simple about paying off our debt. It took two or three years to get back on track. At that time, Cooper Union was building this building as a dorm. They approached us to see if we wanted to be their commercial tenant. They offered a lease 20 percent less than what we were paying at St. Mark's Place. We agreed and it took about 6 months to move in. The vice president of Cooper Union at the time negotiated a 15-year lease with us. It was a very amiable relationship.
When did your financial problems start?
Our troubles began in 2008. We had signed a 10-year lease in 2007, based on the business we were doing then. In the fall of 2008, our business declined and it has declined ever since. The health of the economy never recovered and we were facing a situation where we just couldn't afford [the $20,000 monthly rent]. A year ago, we went to the new vice president [of Cooper Union, T.C. Westcott] for some consideration and she turned us down at that time. We were hoping the economy would recover and we would make a go of it. This summer was even worse than last summer. Rather than see her again we talked to our community.
The Cooper Square Committee is a local neighborhood organization that does advocacy work for small businesses and tenants. Frances Goldin and Joyce Ravitz helped. They put up the petition and sent letters to politicians. I have known Frances for 30 years. She said, "There is no way I am not going to fight for your survival."
Do you feel the decline in your business was worsened by the increasing popularity of online sales and e-readers?
There is room for both. We got the same kind of questions when Barnes and Noble [opened near Astor Place]. The mythology, I guess, was, they are the giant and you are David. They are going to put you out of business-but it never happened.
This is not your typical general bookstore. We have always had this niche market to set us apart from other stores, especially chain stores. We focus on small press poetry, literary criticism and theory, mid-list books and serious books that don't get a lot of commercial attention. If you came in here and asked for a James Patterson novel, we wouldn't have it. What we do have is handpicked to our clientele.
A petition has been circulated with (as of Monday) over 41,000 signatures supporting you. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has lobbied your cause to Cooper Union. Even Michael Moore was here Thursday, Sept. 29 for an impromptu book signing. Have you been surprised by the outpouring of support for the shop?
I had no idea. This all due to the Internet, really. It is just a phenomenon. Frances sent out an email to people who signed the petition and she said, "Go buy a book." We have been busy for the last 10 days to two weeks. Everyone is coming into the store, asking how things are going and what they can do to help. It is heartening.
We went before Community Board 3 and they voted unanimously to write a letter to Cooper Union. The word is spreading around. We just hope that this will influence Cooper Union.
I know the college has forwarded your request to its Finance and Business Affairs Committee. Where does the fate of the bookshop stand at the moment?
We are waiting for the word from Cooper. The committee will make a report by the end of the month, so we are basically a month away [from a decision].
Photo by Andrew Schwartz
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