On November 13, 25 years after the St. Mark's Bookshop began doing business in New York City's Greenwich Village, the bookstore celebrated its anniversary by giving away a $25 gift certificate every hour until its regular closing time at midnight. "Actually, we handed them out at 25 minutes after [each hour], just to be poetic," co-owner Bob Contant told PW. The following week, there was a party at a local restaurant. Revelers included store staff, neighborhood writers such as Walter Abisch, Lynne Tillman and Elinor Nauen, store architects Don Zivkovic and Brian Connolly, and Bob Hawks, v-p of Cooper Union, the store's landlord.
The store has quite a history to celebrate: from its opening in 1977, to its 1989 deliverance from certain closure thanks to an infusion of capital from the late Robert Rodale of Rodale Press, to its relocation to an architectural showcase in 1993. St. Mark's Bookshop is a survivor in the rapidly changing East Village neighborhood.
Contant, partner Terry McCoy and three other equal partners (who have since dropped out) started the store with $10,000. The five friends were frustrated by their four years working together at the East Side Bookstore under an absentee owner and felt they would find more satisfaction running their own bookstore.
"We paid $375 a month rent in 1977 for a storefront at 13 St. Marks Place, and we took no income for the first three years," said Contant. "It was real sweat equity: we built the store ourselves."
Their big break came in 1980, when Eli Wilentz closed his 8th Street Bookshop after three decades. He offered the new bookstore his mailing list and all the handmade, wooden bookcases they wanted. This allowed them to increase the size of the shop: 600 square feet upstairs, 400 downstairs. "Then our business grew at 40% a year for 10 years," said Contant. "And the Village grew too. We had nights where no one could get in until someone left."
Heady with success, the partners decided that since their business had doubled, so should their store size; in 1987 they moved to a larger space across the street. But they had underestimated their costs, and two years later they were struggling with debts of over $800,000.
"We had undercapitalized. And once that spiraling begins, you can't stop it," Contant told PW. "You get put on credit hold with publishers, your inventory starts to shrink and your shelves are bare. We put 'Going Out Of Business' signs in the window. We were looking for any kind of attention we could get, hoping someone could bail us out."
Publisher Robert Rodale saw a cautionary article in the Wall Street Journal about the dangers of undercapitalizing that used the bookstore as an example. "He was interested because, get this, his father had had a Yiddish theater in this neighborhood—yes, Bob Rodale, organic farming—who knew?" laughed Contant. "So he called us and said, 'It sounds like you guys could use some help.' He wanted us to be what we were—an independent bookstore. So he did everything he could: worked out a loan program and helped us avoid Chapter 11. It was beautifully worked out, and 90% of the publishers were supportive. We're still under obligations to repay loans, which will continue for the duration of our lease; but all the people have gone on; the only one left is Mrs. Rodale. They've been hands-off with us. They're truly angels."
Several years later, Cooper Union, which was building a dormitory building nearby, asked if the store would be its commercial tenant. In 1993, St. Mark's Bookshop moved to a brand-new, 2,700-sq.-ft. space on Third Avenue, two blocks from its original location. The innovative, abstract, non-bookstore-ish store design was a close collaboration between the owners and architects at Zivcovic Associates.
"We knew the problems in our previous spaces, and we worked hand in hand with the architects on bookshelf length and the amount of space needed for a person to browse on each side and be able to have someone pass in between them," said Contant. The design won numerous awards for the architects, for whom the store is still a showcase: they do mostly residential work and it is one of the few commercial spaces they have designed.
Despite September 11th, Contant said that 2001 was financially the best year in the store's history. He surmised that the store's success is due to the neighborhood's academic/intellectual flavor, with Cooper Union, New York University and The New School all nearby. "Our secret is being in downtown New York City, which is a voracious market for not only books but anything with intellectual stimulation: movies, art, dance, music, you name it," said Contant. "Other factors have to do with the demise of local bookstores including Posman, Spring Street Books, Rizzoli and Tower Books. So in this part of downtown there's us, Shakespeare & Co., Barnes & Noble, and much further west, Three Lives."
Yet another factor is that the store has a niche: an emphasis on small and academic press titles, plus a creative, artistic clientele. "Graphic design was previously not of any interest to us," Contant told PW, "but now it's the area that sells most."
The store also specializes in critical theory. "We've sold 345 copies of Theodore Adorno's Culture Industry [Routledge] since May 2001, which is a pretty hefty number for such an esoteric title. Each volume of The Selected Writings of Walter Benjamin [Belknap Press] is a bestseller as it comes out. The Arcades Project, [Benjamin's] major opus, came out in March and we've sold 64 copies. And his most famous backlist title, Illuminations, sells about 100 copies a year." Poetry is one of the store's other major subject areas: it stocks 3,500 titles, all single copies, spine out, on its shelves.
"One of the results of chains is finding that there's no pleasure in walking into a barn of a store where there are pyramids of books, where you have to hunt for what you want," said Contant. "So the chains created markets for discerning readers as an alternative to mass culture. We don't have any trouble finding good books to feature."