Neighborhoods

St. Mark’s Bookshop May Be Forced to Close This Week as Debt Woes Continue

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UPDATE: February 9, 9 p.m. — City marshals informed St. Mark’s Bookshop attorney James West that it will not seize the bookstore’s property this week and has postponed until February 17. West is skeptical city marshals will ever show up, but says the store is out of money and will likely not survive much longer.

Original story appears below:

Less than a month after announcing that an “investor” had agreed to help rescue it from mounting debt, the East Village’s St. Mark’s Bookshop might be forced to close within 24 hours.

“There’s a pretty good chance that Wednesday will be the end,” says James West, an attorney who has represented the bookstore since last year. “The store itself, as a functioning business, seems to bleeding out.”

Last month, the Voice reported that St. Mark’s hasn’t paid rent on its 3rd Street storefront since March 2015, racking up more than $68,000 in debt and drawing legal action from its landlord, the New York City Housing Authority. But according to West, there is much more than just back rent payments in all that debt — including $34,400 in unpaid taxes and $16,000 owed to a book distributor. “None of [the debts] are overwhelmingly important,” notes West. “But put them together and it spells disaster.”

The $16,000 owed to Baker & Taylor, a book distributor and longtime business partner of St. Mark’s, is the portion that could be the store’s death knell. The distributor took legal action last August and the two sides tried to negotiate a plan for the store to pay off the debt, but the shop had little leverage. “Usually with a case like that, it could be settled if you make some sort of payment up front and then you agree to pay monthly,” according to West. “But they really don’t have the money, and we couldn’t offer very much.”

As a result, St. Mark’s was recently served with “a notice of auction” stating that city marshals will show up to the bookstore Wednesday morning and begin carting off everything but the fixtures to help satisfy debts owed to B&T, according to West. In the meantime, the store’s bank accounts have been frozen, and a crowdfunding campaign designed to keep the establishment afloat (it had raised $23,657) has been suspended. In advance of potentially losing its dwindling collection of books, St. Mark’s announced on February 4 that everything would be sold at half price — cash only.

Bob Contant, the store’s sole owner, could not be reached for comment Monday. Asked if slashing the prices was a tactic designed to undermine the seizure of the store’s assets, West says: “You’re not supposed to evade your creditors. Having a going-out-of-business sale could be a potential source of problems — I don’t know if that’s what he’s doing.”

In an email, B&T declined to comment “on the particulars of any legal matter,” adding, “It is always B&T’s preference to work out a mutually agreeable solution in matters such as this, whenever possible. You can be sure that B&T is always working towards that end.”

In a certain sense, an agreement with B&T would be moot at this point. West says that almost immediately after St. Mark’s was served with the auction notice, the state filed a tax warrant, which could also result in asset seizures. And even if the store were somehow able to pay off its debt to both the state and B&T, it would still face a March 9 court date in the housing authority case, which is seeking eviction if the booksellers cannot pay back their rent. (West notes that the store is also in debt to publisher W.W. Norton, which according to online court records is pursuing legal action.)

Still, West says he doubts that city marshals will actually arrive to raid the shelves Wednesday; there just isn’t enough inventory to make the creditors any real money. “They’ll be lucky if they get $1,000 for those books,” West adds. “What exactly are they going to do?” A woman who answered the phone at the city marshals’ office confirmed they will show up Wednesday morning but would not comment further except to say: “You will have to show up and see how it works.”

The silver lining to all this could be that Contant, the store’s owner, wasn’t wrong when he said there are people willing to support St. Mark’s financially. Though Contant refused to name those investors in an earlier interview, the Awl reported them as Charles FitzGerald (a longtime East Villager and former St. Mark’s landlord) and Rafay Khalid (who reportedly covered the store’s $22,000 down payment on its lease). “It cannot be revived unless there’s a clean slate,” FitzGerald told the Awl.

“The good news,” adds West, “is there’s a beautiful bookstore all laid out already at that address. As quirky and odd as they are, they’re hugely popular. There’s a huge desire to see them stay.”

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