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St. Mark's Bookshop Facing Uncertain Future in East Village

By Patrick Hedlund | September 14, 2011 7:11am | Updated on September 14, 2011 9:25am
The St. Mark's Bookshop, on Third Avenue and Stuyvesant Street, is facing closure if it doesn't get a rent reduction.
The St. Mark's Bookshop, on Third Avenue and Stuyvesant Street, is facing closure if it doesn't get a rent reduction.
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Flickr/Sarmale / O.

EAST VILLAGE — For decades, the St. Mark’s Bookshop has been a destination for a certain type of reader — whether they’re combing the store’s vast poetry section, flipping through glossy art titles or searching for hard-to-find texts on post-structuralist philosophy.

But the independent shop could close after nearly 35 years in the neighborhood if its owners can’t negotiate a new rent deal with landlord Cooper Union.

The bookseller, which originally opened on St. Mark’s Place in 1977 before moving to Third Avenue, claims it can’t continue paying market rent for its space and needs a reduction to stay afloat.

“We’ve done everything we can at the store in terms of cutting expenses,” said co-owner Bob Contant, noting that he’s already let go all part-time staff, receives state aid to pay his full-time employees, and relies on his own Social Security benefits to keep the store in business.

“There’s not much else we can do.”

Contant and co-owner Terry McCoy will meet with Cooper Union officials Wednesday to discuss what, if anything, can be done to keep the shop at the corner of Stuyvesant Street from shuttering.

The school itself leases the dormitory building housing the bookstore from an outside property manager, a Cooper Union spokeswoman said, but the college handles rent negotiations with its retail tenants.

In June, the owners asked the school for a $5,000 reduction from the current monthly rent of $20,000, Contant said. He claimed the college rejected the offer flat out, even after agreeing back in 1993 to take the bookstore on at a reduced rate —  a move many say was done to appease the community as it fought against the addition of another dorm building in the neighborhood.

Contant attributed the school’s reluctance to negotiate to a shift in administration over the past few years, calling the Cooper Union “not particularly receptive in wanting to do anything, other than offering a plan for us to leave the premises within four months.”

That comes as a shock to Contant, given the store’s natural tendency to serve a more academic clientele.

“The disappointing thing from our point of view is that there’s no sympathy for a cultural institution,” he said, noting the college has compensated the store during past renovations of the building and surrounding area. “We might as well be a pizza shop.”

The news has mobilized support for the store via an ever-growing online petition that has already garnered more than 24,000 signatures, some of which are accompanied by comments heralding the store for its unique selections.

"I often travel in from Brooklyn to purchase books I am increasingly unable to find anywhere else,” said signatory Mark Crawford, who was one of approximately 3,000 to sign the petition each day since it went live last Wednesday.

Joyce Ravitz, president of the affordable housing and preservation group the Cooper Square Committee, began the petition last week and watched as thousands of notes of support for the bookstore flooded in.

“This is an important Lower East Side icon. It’s a cultural institution in itself,” she said. “It’s a bookstore that doesn’t exists anywhere else in the world.”

Ravitz added that she wants to get more current Cooper Union students, faculty and alumni to stand in support of the shop to help stress its importance to the school.

“Bookstores like St. Mark’s make the Lower East Side the Lower East Side,” she said, adding that places like the shop draw students to the area to attend colleges like the Cooper Union and NYU.

“They shouldn’t be cutting off their nose to spite their face.”