On my most recent trip to St. Mark’s Bookshop in New York City’s East Village, I struck up a conversation with the cashier. At the time, St. Mark’s was in a rent dispute with their landlord, Cooper Union. St. Mark’s couldn’t afford to pay the rent. Cooper Union couldn’t afford to decrease the rent. “Basically,” she said, “they just don’t know what to do with us.” At the end of last week, Cooper Union decided to do the right thing. This is not especially surprising. While there are some who believed that Cooper was unwilling to lower the cost of occupying 31 Third Avenue simply out of callous greed, it’s unlikely. Founded in 1859, Cooper Union admits students on their merits alone, and awards any student admitted a full scholarship. Its mission, according to its website is to offer “public programs for the civic, cultural and practicable enrichment of New York City.” Not exactly Scrooge’s counting house.
The rent dispute incited a veritable furor in the blogosphere. There was outrage. There was vitriol. There was a petition. Yet the one thing there was not, at least not when I was at St. Mark’s, was a crowd. When I told the cashier that I’d been following the story from Chicago and hoped they were able to come to an agreement with their landlord, she looked from me to the empty shop as if to say, “Chicago must be really boring.”
Shuffling out the door with my purchase (Paul Hendrickson’s new biography, Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961), I had to wonder where all the East Village Bookworms had hidden themselves. True, the freezing rain that was falling when I walked in the shop had become a pre-Halloween snow by the time I left, but St. Mark’s strikes me as just the right sort of place to hole away on a snowy October afternoon. The shelves are lined with everything from Penguin Classics to small press poetry collections, not to mention their striking selection of literary magazines. This was not a store pushed to the brink by digital publishing or Amazon. This was a store on the verge of death by apathy. It’s a funny thing to say about something that nearly 45,000 people signed their names to protect, but if we were to try to answer the bard’s question by process of elimination, “Next month’s rent” would probably be a good place to start a list of Things That Are Not in a Name.
The shelves at St. Mark’s are peppered with signs that read “Find it here. Buy it here. Keep us here.” This is not just a pithy slogan. It is a desperate plea. Their only hope - the only hope of any store - is to stay in business through regular patronage. It isn’t a matter of greed. It isn’t a matter of capitalism. It isn’t a matter of freedom, or liberty, or justice for all. St. Mark’s has provided a service to its community for which its community has kept its owners and employees afloat for nearly four decades. Now, Cooper Union has agreed to lower the rent at 31 Third Avenue, and has even encouraged its students to help St. Mark's rethink its business model while remaining true to the landmark store that has been inextricably woven into the fabric of the neighborhood. I realize that it isn't possible for you all to shop at St. Mark's, but if you have the means, I highly recommend stopping by.