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Rent Too Damn High for St. Mark's Bookshop; East Village Institution Might Have to Close

Local institution St. Mark's Bookshop is in danger of closing, and the Cooper Square Committee, a neighborhood group, has started a petition to try to save the independent bookstore. Rising rents and decreasing revenue have put the bookshop's future in jeopardy as the owners attempt to negotiate with their landlord, Cooper Union.

St. Mark's Bookshop moved to its current location at the ground floor of the Cooper Union residence building on Third Avenue and 9th Street around 18 years ago. Co-owner Bob Contant says that Cooper Union offered a 20 percent reduction on the rent in order to entice the bookshop to be its commercial tenant (the store was originally located around the corner on St. Mark's Place). This has come back to haunt St. Mark's Bookshop recently, as a little over two years ago Cooper Union raised the store's rent to $20,000 a month.

As the rent becomes more and more untenable, it could mean the end of St. Mark's Bookshop; the owners say they don't have the means to move to a new location. That said, "closing is the last thing we want," says Contant.

Over the past few years, Contant has laid off the store's part-time staff and reduced the hours for the store's full-time staff--which technically is now a part-time staff, as they work 24 hours a week and are compensated for the rest by New York State's Shared Work Program. Contant himself draws from Social Security in order to reduce expenditures.

Contant blames the decline of his store on the rise of e-books, as well as on the vicious cycle known to small bookstores: When sales are down, restocking inventory becomes difficult, which results in lower sales as consumers leave for locations with larger stocks (though it's important even corporate bookstores are feeling the recession, namely the recently-shuttered Borders and Barnes & Noble, which is apparently considering downsizing.

On Wednesday, Contant and co-owner Terence McCoy will meet with Theresa C. Westcott, Cooper Union's Vice President of Finance, Adminstration, and Treasury, in order to negotiate a rent reduction. Contant aims for a $5,000/month reduction, but says the new administration has not been "particularly sympathetic."

The petition to "Save the St. Marks' Bookshop" currently has more than 12,000 signatures, an effort by Cooper Square Committee chairwoman Joyce Ravitz that Contant calls "heartening." Comments from people who have signed range from the earnest ("Cooper Union's reputation is staked to its commitment to subsidize the costs of education for its students--here is a chance to extend that gesture, in small part, to the larger educational community of the east village.") to the well-meaning-but-inaccurate ("St. Marks is the only bookstore that is not a Barnes & Noble or attached to a University. It has a wide and unique stock. Especially in culture, art, politics and theory. It must not close.") to the pleasantly curmudgeonly. Ravitz is trying to gather the support of local elected officials, such as councilwoman Rosie Mendez and state senator Daniel Squadron. If you want to help, you can sign the petition or just buy some books.

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