The fate of St. Mark’s Bookshop in Manhattan’s East Village, once a haunt of writers Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, will be in limbo until late next month, when the landlord plans to decide whether to reduce its rent.
Cooper Union, the arts engineering school that doesn’t charge its students tuition, owns the property. Sales at the store, opened in 1977 by co-owners Terry McCoy and Bob Contant, have dropped 35 percent since the financial crisis that hit in 2008. One year earlier, they signed a 10-year lease at a rent of $20,000 per month on the 2,700-square-foot (250-square-meter) shop. Falling sales have forced them to reduce inventory and fire eight part-time employees, and now they are seeking a rent cut of $5,000 a month from Cooper Union.
Cooper Union’s board passed the request to its Finance and Business Affairs Committee, and a decision is planned for the end of October, Contant said today. The owners’ struggle has ignited a public outpouring of support for the shop, located on Third Avenue between 8th and 9th Streets. An online petition called “Save the St. Mark’s Bookshop” had garnered nearly 36,000 signatures as of Thursday afternoon.
“All the support feels great,” said McCoy. “Especially when business is declining, you’re thinking you’ve been forgotten. Then people hear about this and actually come in to see how they can help.”
Jolene Travis, Cooper Union’s assistant director of public affairs, said discussions with St. Mark’s Bookshop were ongoing.
When the store first opened, the owners were paying $375 a month for the place and the “derelict” neighborhood was languishing in a post-1960s hangover, McCoy said.
“The neighborhood was in a depression,” he said. “The summer of love in the late ’60s and that whole thing, the Electric Circus had been here, the Fillmore East had been here. That had all gone away, and so had business, basically.”
Since then, the East Village has regained its status as a cultural hub, thanks in part to nearby New York University.
Steven Zwaryczuk, manager at the historic McSorley’s Old Ale House on nearby 7th Street, said the neighborhood is a revolving door for small businesses.
“It’s always been a neighborhood in transition,” said Zwaryczuk, who has worked at the bar since 1973. “I’ve been here so long I don’t even remember what the storefronts had in them before, but they were paying peanuts and they thought they were paying too much, even 30 years ago.”
Rents have been steadily rising in recent years, making it difficult for small-business owners like McCoy and Contant to pay the bills each month.
‘On the Rise’
“It’s very active,” Faith Hope Consolo, chairman of retail leasing at Prudential Douglas Elliman in New York, said of the commercial real estate market in the area. “Since we’ve had a great rebound over the past 12 months, the momentum continues and rents have been on the rise.”
Sales have picked up this month, and McCoy says he believes it’s because of the publicity about their plight.
“I really like small bookstores like this,” said Damon Griffin, 24, who browsed the store’s shelves earlier this week. He said that when neighborhood landmarks like St. Mark’s disappear, locals “feel like they’ve lost a part of their personal culture in New York.”
The financial crisis of 2008 “was actually the first time since we opened the store that our business really declined,” said Contant.
He and McCoy said they think the decrease in sales has been related more to the economy than to the rise of electronic readers that have hurt sales at other bookstores.
In 2010, e-book sales doubled to $441.3 million, accounting for 8.3 percent of revenue from trade books, according to the American Association of Publishers.
With niche sections like cultural theory, graphic design and anarchy, the store caters to academics and special interest customers who won’t find the titles they’re looking for electronically or at chain bookstores.
“When Barnes and Noble was here on Astor Place, it was a citadel of mass culture,” Contant said. “We were sort of like the gourmet store that featured the kinds of things that you couldn’t get there.”
McCoy said moving to a less-expensive space would help in the long run, though the cost of the relocation would be too pricey right now.
“You have to have a chunk of money to move and you have to build the actual space for a bookstore,” he said. “It can’t be done cheaply.”
East Village Rents
The average asking rent in the East Village is $100 to $125 a square foot, according to Consolo. At St. Mark’s current rent, the store is paying $88.88 per square foot.
Consolo said the closest comparable space, a 2,500-square- foot property on 19th Street and First Avenue, was asking $100 per square foot.
Eric Ferriello, director of brokerage services at Colliers International in New York, said that while St. Mark’s rent seems “a bit high,” the landlord has leverage since the shop is in a “premier location in a nice building.”
“It’s a unique market because there’s not that much space and it’s not a commercial-usage area,” he said.
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