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After years of uncertainty, dire warnings about possible closure, and legal action from its current landlord, St. Mark’s Bookshop is counting on an unnamed benefactor to pay off its tens of thousands of dollars in delinquent rent payments.
In a January 16 Facebook post, the iconic East Village bookstore announced that it had found an “investor” to take over its lease with the New York City Housing Authority, which owns the shop’s space in the First Houses projects at 136 East 3rd Street. But St. Mark’s guardian angel has a condition: The store’s owner, Bob Contant, must first come up with funding to restock its barren shelves. “We have an investor who is willing to pay the back rent,” Contant confirmed in an interview with the Voice. “He only wants to do it if the bookstore can continue.”
The shop’s most recent financial problems have been brewing since last March, when St. Mark’s started defaulting on its roughly $6,000-per-month rent payments — a debt that has since ballooned to $68,361, according to court papers filed by the housing authority. The investor, a longtime “friend” of Contant’s whom he would not name, has agreed to pay off the bookstore’s outstanding debt to the housing authority and take over the lease, though he will still collect monthly rent from the bookstore. That same person gave the shop $50,000 last year to help beef up its inventory, Contant says, and is not interested in taking over the store’s day-to-day operations. “There’s no interest on this, there’s no loan on this. He’s acting as a friend.”
Contant says there’s no hard deadline to show the investor that the store will be able to restock the shelves on its own, but he’s hoping to have lined up more funding before a March 9 court date in the housing authority case. “We’re hoping that with some more exposure, we might find an angel who might help us out of our situation,” he says. “We’re just keeping our fingers crossed.”
The bookstore, which originally opened on St. Marks Place in 1977, has been struggling financially since at least 2011, but things began to decline precipitously in July of 2014, when the bookseller moved from 31 Third Avenue to avoid paying increases on its $20,000 monthly rent. “We had cost overruns from moving,” Contant says. “And we’re also in debt to publishers over the last year or so.” He adds that his inventory has fallen by over 50 percent. The idea behind relying on an investor, explains Contant, is to keep the bookstore solvent long enough to get its inventory back in shape and give it another shot at profitability.
But the agreement isn’t final and no settlement has been reached to resolve the housing authority case. One sticking point, according to Contant, is whether the bookstore’s benefactor will be allowed to pay off the debt in monthly installments instead of one lump sum. (For its part, citing pending litigation, the housing authority declined to comment on the specifics of those negotiations.) But a bigger question looms: Even if the bookstore can make its rent problems go away, how is it going to raise enough money to put books on the shelves and ultimately break even?
Contant’s immediate answer involves a mix of hope and crowdfunding. Since November, the bookstore has raised just over $23,000 through a GoFundMe campaign — far short of its $150,000 goal. But Contant’s pleas to the public have begun to rankle even the bookstore’s longstanding supporters, who point out that St. Mark’s already used a crowdfunding campaign (which raised $51,740) to help defray costs arising from the move in 2014.
“If they couldn’t make six grand a month work, then nothing will,” wrote one commenter in response to a post on East Village blog EV Grieve. “And as much as I loved the original location on St. Marks — and I really loved it — these guys have strained the goodwill of the community and former customers with multiple GoFundMe campaigns. It’s a wrap, guys. Call it a day and move on.”
Contant acknowledges the possibility of what he terms “donor fatigue” but says it would be devastating for the East Village to lose another cultural hub. And it’s not as though other local booksellers haven’t used crowdfunding to keep the lights on. Back in October, the radical-feminist Bluestockings bookstore launched a crowdfunding effort to rehab its deteriorating infrastructure.
But if St. Mark’s does fail, it will fall mostly on Contant’s back. He’s the only owner left after Terry McCoy recently sold his share in the business to Contant (for a dollar). “If we go out of business, it’ll force me into bankruptcy,” he says. So why take on that risk? “In a practical sense, I need a job. I can’t just live on Social Security. Who’s going to hire a 72-year-old bookseller?”
Still, the prospect of St. Mark’s demise rattles many of those who remember it as being central to the Village’s intellectualism and counterculture. “It would be a damn shame if the East Village can’t sustain a bookstore,” says Arthur Nersesian, an author whose first novel was featured at St. Mark’s when no one else would sell it.
Nersesian, who has lived in the East Village since the Seventies, remembers St. Mark’s Bookshop as a hub for young writers. He worries that the internet can’t replace the rich exchange of ideas that once flourished in independent bookstores. But he’s also quick to acknowledge that booksellers are facing strong headwinds from giants like Amazon and will likely have to scrap and finagle their way back into relevance. “Any wise businessman would have folded years ago,” he says. “But do I think there’s been any grave mismanagement? I think they’re probably trying to sustain beyond [what is] sustainable.” (For his part, Contant offers, “If we’re just kind of delusional about this, we deserve to go out of business.”)
That sense of nostalgia mixed with ambivalence about the bookstore’s future prospects is echoed by Ada Calhoun, author of St. Marks Is Dead, a 400-year history of the street that was home to the shop’s original location for nearly two decades. “It’s this place a lot of us grew up with as a temple for ideas,” she says. “It’s one of the last of its tribe.”
Calhoun says she has fond memories of St. Mark’s Bookshop. It’s where she discovered local zines and started connecting with some of the Village’s literary voices. At one point she even tried to get her own zine on the rack — and was unceremoniously rejected. (Her book is now one of the store’s bestsellers.) “I personally want them to stay afloat forever,” she says. “[But] I don’t want to be the person who’s like, ‘It’s just the way it is…it’s sad and tragic when we lose things.’ You can’t stop change in New York City.”