(Photo by Kavitha Surana)

(Photo by Kavitha Surana)

We’ve had a tough run lately, saying goodbye to some of our favorite eclectic bookstores– St. Mark’s Bookshop turned out the lights  last month, and Left Bank Books shuttered last Friday.

But some bookstores–or, at least, some types of bookstores–are soldiering on, despite high rents and dwindling customers. In February indie publishers Badlands Unlimited debuted a novel solution: they started hawking a shelf of selected books at the 99 cent shop underneath their office, billing it as an “experience.” Now, art-book publisher Karma, formerly on Great Jones Street, has relocated to 38 Orchard Street, prime gallery row.

Some still mourning the demise of St. Mark’s might be raising their eyebrows–does a bookstore have any hope of surviving amid all the doom and gloom? What’s the sense of moving to a land so seemingly scorched?

(Photo by Kavitha Surana)

(Photo by Kavitha Surana)

The key, at least right now, seems to be specialization and multiple revenue streams. A narrowly art-focused bookstore is a very different beast from the relatively sprawling selection at St. Mark’s (though don’t forget, Bluestockings and Mast Books are still surviving). Karma, for example, treats books as artwork on par with a gallery and they have a very specific niche, mostly selling big coffee-table books focused on contemporary art from the second half of the twentieth century, like a fat tome of Dash Snow’s polaroids, I Love You, Stupid!, or a Friedlander MoMA retrospective. They sell many rare books and special editions, and also design books for others, besides their own publishing business. Oh, and there’s pickles.

(Photo by Kavitha Surana)

(Photo by Kavitha Surana)

“I guess this is really specialized, so that’s part of how it works,” said Mary MacDougall, Karma’s bookstore manager. “We can build relationships with artists and do something unique for them, and then we can put in other books that complement their work and influenced them.”

So, in a kind of feedback loop, many artists are both creators and consumers. “Because they design books, they’re always looking for books that will inspire their designs as well,” explained MacDougall. “The books and the artist and the designer all feed each other.”

But, even with this arrangement the future is still uncertain. Karma doesn’t know if they’ll be staying in the space (which used to be occupied by concept shop Project No. 8) long-term yet – besides the high LES rents, there’s not enough room to run a full-fledged gallery, like they had on Bond Street.

Still, it should be an interesting run while it lasts and a natural complement to the burgeoning gallery scene–even if it doesn’t fulfill your desire to poke around Left Bank’s broad “museum” of books.

“We’re really excited to be in this neighborhood and we are looking forward to doing more book launches now that we have a shop space for the books,” said MacDougall. Stop by tonight for a talk with Paul Lee on his new special-edition book, CAROUSEL. 

Karma, 38 Orchard Street at Hester. Open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., 917-675-7508.