Since it relocated to Third Street in New York City’s East Village, St. Mark’s Bookshop has been dogged by financial woes. Currently slapped with a lawsuit from the New York City Housing Authority over nonpayment of rent, the bookstore is now facing a new legal threat from distributor Baker & Taylor.
B&T initiated the lawsuit when St. Mark’s stopped paying down the money it owed the distributor for shipments of books. The lawsuit, which was filed in August, could now put the bookstore out of business as early as Wednesday.
A New York City marshal, who carries out the orders of the court, visited the store two weeks ago to notify owner Bob Contant about the dire situation, and the fact that an execution sale could be held on February 10. If the sale happens, the marshal has the authority to sell nearly everything in the store except the fixtures.
In addition, B&T has a restraining order on the bookstore’s checking account. This fact forced St. Mark’s to suspend its Gofundme campaign, which had raised a little more than $23,600 over the past two months. As a result of the order, St. Mark’s can no longer accept credit cards. The store initiated a cash-only clearance sale of books and magazines late last week.
When B&T initiated its lawsuit, St. Mark's owed the distributor roughly $16,000. For Contant, the lawsuit was a low blow. “We did about $3 million worth of business with Baker over 25 years,” he said.
A B&T spokesperson told PW, via email, that the company could not comment on the particulars of any legal matter. “Generally, however, I would note that it is always B&T’s preference to work out a mutually agreeable solution in matters such as this," the spokesperson wrote. "You can be sure that B&T has been working towards that end.”
Jim West, a lawyer with his own firm who has been providing pro bono legal assistance to St. Mark's, explained that New York City would probably prefer not to see the execution sale happen. The reason, West explained, is because the cost of the auction would likely be higher than the money it will bring in.
If the execution sale does not happen, West said St. Mark's could stay open until March 9, which is the date of the next hearing about the back rent.
“We just don’t have the money to pay our way anymore,” said Contant, who is now the sole owner of St. Mark’s. (He bought out his partner, Terry McCoy, for $1 when the bookstore moved to its current location.) “We owe rent and sales tax. We recognize that we will close, if not Wednesday, then soon.”
Contant did indicate, though, that if the execution sale does not go through, he intends to stay open. However, another potential default judgment could be wending its way through the courts. W.W. Norton also filed suit against the bookstore last summer for nonpayment.
Despite the bleak situation--Contant, who is liable for the rent and sales tax, could face personal banktruptcy if the store collapses--both bookseller and lawyer are optimistic. They are hoping that former St. Mark’s landlord Charles FitzGerald, who was assigned the lease of the store after he gave St. Mark’s $50,000 at the end of 2014, will take over the shop with a group of investors.
West regards this possibility as the best case scenario. “The bookstore is there; it’s beautiful. I think it could work," he said.
If the store were to change hands, though, FitzGerald and other investors have said they do not want to assume the store’s debts. Under that plan, West explained, St. Mark’s could be turned into more of a nonprofit that would employ Contant and the rest of the store's current staff.
West and Contant are hoping the parties involved see the value of this plan, which would ensure that the East Village keeps one if its iconic, and longstanding, independent bookstores.