Saturday, September 24, 2011

An open letter to Cooper Union on the fate of St. Mark's Bookshop

St. Mark's Bookshop in New York is a landmark that has been the literary and spiritual home to a generation of young writers since it opened in 1977. In the current economic climate it was perhaps inevitable that the bookshop's future would become a question of rent receipts and other business considerations. The rising cost of city real estate has forced Cooper Union to consider raising the Bookshop's rent to current rates -- when the current rent is difficult enough to maintain.

The New York Daily News reported that the shop's owners have done "as much belt-tightening as we can do": Since last year, the owners have laid off most of their part-time staff, dramatically slashed the hours of their full-time workers and taken a 50% pay-cut.

The last time the two sides met, in early 2010, Cooper Union was unwilling to budge on the rent, which is currently $20,000 a month.

The website Jeremiah's Vanishing New York reports this week on the continuing fiscal threat to St. Mark's. A decision was expected to be announced Friday, but apparently has been delayed: the St. Mark's Books rent decision won't come today. The owners tell me that Cooper is giving the request "serious consideration," have referred the matter to Finance, "and we should expect to hear back from them by the end of October." That means there's still time to buy lots of books and boost the shop's sales and spirits.

In an earlier post the blog's curator, Jeremiah Moss, noted the change in municipal and university attitudes:

What has changed in this city since 1997 that Cooper Union could permit St. Mark's Bookshop to fail in hard times? What has changed that Cooper Union, where people who ostensibly value "matters of the mind," would not value its neighboring bookstore enough to keep it alive and thriving? What has changed that the East Village could become a university neighborhood (Cooper, NYU, SVA) without its own high-quality bookstore?

In 1997, Columbia's provost stated: "It is especially important, it seems to me, that universities offer some form of support to keep this kind of bookstore in existence."

So what has changed in this city between 1997 and today? (And it's not just about Apple and Amazon.)
Terry McCoy and Bob Contant,
owners of St. Mark's

Here is an open letter Moss recently posted to Cooper Union that outlines the current situation. In a subsequent post Moss indicated the petition to maintain St. Marks has now been endorsed with 34,000 signatures.

Dear Cooper Union:

Today you are meeting with the owners of the St. Mark's Bookshop to discuss a rent reduction that would keep this invaluable business afloat. So far, the owners say, you have not been
"particularly sympathetic" to the situation.

You weren't particularly sympathetic in 1994 when you leased a gas station to the Bowery Bar, helping to set in motion a tsunami of hyper-gentrification. Bowery Bar's neighbor (gone now) put a lighted sign in his window saying, "Cooper Union: How could you do this to us?" More protesters responded, "Don't Party on the Poor." But the party raged on.

You weren't particularly sympathetic in 2000 when you leased the Astor Place parking lot for a luxury hotel that turned into a luxury condo tower--one that opened the door for more massive development in the East Village. One of your own faculty members at the time told the Observer, "[Peter Cooper] would die again if he knew what was going on. For him to find out what his legacy turned out to be, he would be appalled. He was never one for pure mercenary gain. It’s all about money, money, money."

You weren't particularly sympathetic in 2001 when you tried to demap Taras Shevchenko Place and the Ukrainians of the East Village fought back.

You weren't particularly sympathetic in 2004 when you painted over a popular 9/11 mural to make space for advertising on 35 Cooper Square. That little building was later sold to developers and demolished against more protests.

You aren't being particularly sympathetic now in your current plans to turn Astor Place into a corporate office park. The neighborhood has been fighting those plans for the past decade to no avail.

Even though, as we understand it, you make a mint on the Chrysler Building, which stands on your property and reportedly costs the city $8 million every year, you keep finding ways to make more money from the East Village. As New York Magazine put it, you have "helped to corporatize a once raffish and still artistically fertile area." People are angry. We have lost too much. We cannot lose one of the best bookstores in the city--a place that fuels the soul in an increasingly soulless neighborhood.

As of this writing, more than 24,000 people have signed the petition to save St. Mark's Bookshop. Will you be sympathetic to that enormous outcry? I hope you will surprise us and grant their request, but your track record does not inspire optimism.

A few years ago, I was inspired by a story in the documentary film Twilight Becomes Night. A group of Upper West Siders saved their local pharmacy from eviction by calling the bank that planned to move into the space, and telling them, "We will not use your services." The bank backed off. Suba Pharmacy still stands. So here's an idea: If St. Mark's Books is forced to close due to unyielding rent, whatever business moves into their space at 31 Third Avenue will be boycotted and protested by the thousands of people who read this blog and all the blogs connected to it. Nothing will thrive there --no bank, no cupcake shop, no kitten adoption center.

I'm sorry, but I can't be more sympathetic.

Vanishing New York

(file photo of McCoy and Contant from The New York Daily News)

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