After a hopeful move to a new location, the beleaguered St. Mark’s Bookshop is once again in danger of closing due to a dispute with its landlord. This time, it’s facing possible eviction by the New York City Housing Authority, which alleges that the beloved bookshop owes over $62,000 in rent.
Attorney James West, an East Villager who is representing the bookshop’s owners pro bono, tells us that “some factors caught up with them” after Cooper Union raised the rent on their longtime location at 31 Third Avenue. “The rent went up quite a lot, to $45,000 a month,” West said. “You gotta sell a lot of books to make that kind of rent.”
The rent at the new location on the ground floor of the historic First Houses — just over $6,000 a month — constitutes a “pretty good price” for the East Village, but the bookstore has been unable to pay it for “probably 10 months,” West said. In court documents, NYCHA alleges that St. Mark’s owes $62,112.76 through December 15, 2015.
The lawyer is seeking to have the case, which has not yet advanced beyond hearing status, dismissed based on technicalities such as an inaccuracies contained within NYCHA’s petition. But it may well go to trial, and if the Bookshop loses, it could be evicted from its storefront.
However, West said the fact that the city is acting as the bookshop’s landlord could prove to be advantageous for the defense. “They may be amendable to a positive settlement,” he told us, pointing out that it was difficult to imagine a settlement that would be “unfair” to the city. “I mean, they don’t really need the back rent. But [the city] is looking at this also from a very practical standpoint: ‘We entered into a lease– it’s a pretty good rent, it’s a nice, large space– and they’ve gotta pay what they owe.'”
It remains to be seen whether NYCHA will take the bookstore’s cultural value into account. “I don’t know if the Housing Authority does stuff like that,” West said, “But the Mayor certainly does. I’m hoping we can find someone in the political arena to help address the fact that this is an institution that many people remember very fondly and don’t want to lose. So if there is a way to resolve this, let’s find it.”
West describes himself as a “fossil of the neighborhood” who’s been shopping at the bookshop ever since it opened in 1977 — they year he moved to the East Village. More recently, he has helped with the bookstore’s effort to kickstart its business; last month, he made and helped post a Christmas-themed flyer that reminded people to “buy a book and help save the St. Mark’s Bookshop.”
The bookshop was forced to leave its Third Avenue location in late 2013. Bob Contant, co-owner of the store along with Terry McCoy, told B+B last month that his landlord, Cooper Union, hastily forced him out of the space in anticipation of a new tenant that never materialized (Cooper Union called that version of events “untrue.”) The destabilizing move prompted several fundraising campaigns as well as efforts to recruit volunteers, but the store’s inventory decreased dramatically, and back in August, Contant sent out an email imploring people with means to “please consider buying an ownership interest in a new St. Mark’s Bookshop.”
Most recently, a gofundme campaign, launched Dec. 1, has raised only about $18,000 of the $150,000 in “immediate help” that St. Mark’s said it needed in order to make it into the new year.
Today, Contant again attributed the store’s financial problems, including the inability to pay rent, to the move and the continuing lack of inventory. “We’ve been limping along ever since we moved in here,” he said.
But the inability of the Bookshop to pay its rent began with the Third Avenue location. “Business declined after 2008,” he said. “It’s never been as robust since.” Then, when Cooper Union raised the rent, things took a turn for the worse. “We were negotiating with them,” in hopes of keeping the rent down, Contant recalled. “They wouldn’t accept– we even offered to be the Cooper Union bookstore, because they don’t have one.” After failing to appease the university, Contant admitted, “We could not pay the rent increase.” Though he couldn’t recall how long the shop had stopped paying rent, Contant said it was less than a year.
We asked Contant what would be the ideal outcome for him. “It would be for an angel to step out and buy the store,” he said. “We don’t have any collateral to put up– we don’t own an apartment or a car– we’re at the mercy of the business world.” Once again he emphasized the importance of building up the bookshop’s inventory. “I’m optimistic in that my experience at this store is that a lot of people, especially people in Manhattan, are interested in buying books.”
For West, the possibility of St. Mark’s closing raises a rather disturbing prospect. “There are only two or three small bookshops left in the East Village/West Village/ Soho area,” he pointed out. “We’re looking at a city with no bookstores, which is kind of shocking to me– I don’t think anybody really wants to see that. Does Manhattan really not have any bookstores anymore? That’s a big question, and I don’t know what the answer to it is, other than sadness.”
The case against St. Mark’s is adjourned until January 20. In the meatime, the court has ordered the shop to pay $6,180 to NYCHA.