By Paul Bisceglio
St. Mark’s Bookshop has been a literary fixture of the East Village since 1977. It’s where Allen Ginsberg met Philip Glass, where Susan Sontag and Annie Leibovitz spent Sunday evenings and where William S. Burroughs hung out. Since the economy took a turn for the worse, however, the shop has struggled to stay open. Co-owners Robert Contant and Terry McCoy now seek funding to relocate from their iconic spot at 31 Third Ave. to a smaller store with a cheaper monthly rent.
Contant explained to Our Town Downtown that the move is “speculative.” The bookshop has applied for a highly competitive $250,000 Mission: Small Business grant from Chase and Living Social, which aims to support the growth of small businesses across the country. In September, a committee will select up to 12 businesses from a pool of thousands based on a lengthy application that outlines the applicant’s importance to the community and plans for development, as well as a preliminary online voting period that ended last month.
“The grant is, realistically, a long shot,” Contant recently admitted.
If St. Mark’s beats the odds, it will have no difficulty transferring its business to a smaller venue, where it will continue to focus on niche markets like small press poetry, literary criticism and theory and mid-list books. If it fails to win the award, the bookshop’s future location—and future in general—will be unclear, though Contant assured that they are in the middle of exploring a number of options to stay afloat.
One thing is certain, he said: “We are not thinking of leaving the East Village.”
Last fall, the burden of the bookshop’s $20,000-a-month lease at its present location forced Contant and McCoy to request a rent reduction from their landlord, the tuition-free college Cooper Union, which refused due to its own financial strain. East Village residents and a local community group called the Cooper Square Committee rescued the bookshop by circulating a petition that garnered 40,000 signatures. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer held a meeting with the co-owners and Cooper Union to reach a compromise.
“When an independent bookstore goes out of business, a part of us goes with it,” Stringer told the New York Times after a deal was reached.
Cooper Union agreed to forgive a $7,500 debt and promised to lower the bookshop’s monthly rent to $17,500 for about a year. Though the college set no official date for when the reduced rate will end, Contant and McCoy know they need a more permanent solution soon.
Until they find one, their message to the community is clear—posted on their door, in fact: “Find It Here. Buy It Here. Keep us Here. Thank You for Your Continued Support.”
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