Monday, September 12th, 2011

Saving the St. Mark's Bookshop (From Itself)

The St. Mark's Bookshop has been the beneficiary of a much-Twittered petition to its landlord this last week. Just a little over two years ago, the bookstore signed a new ten-year lease for $20,000 a month. ($240,000 a year; that's 9,234 full-price hardback copies of The Art of Fielding, or, 36% of Chad Harbach's advance for The Art of Fielding.) That lease expires in a bit under eight years. Now the owners say it's onerous (so what were they thinking!?) and they have a meeting with their landlord, Cooper Union, this week. (Their last meeting was ineffectual, the owners said; since, a City Councilmember and others have gone to Cooper Union asking for a reduction.

I love this book store in particular, I love bookstores in general and I also love physical books and… listen, this is just not how leasing or New York City or business works.

I encourage you petition-signers to go to your own landlords—during the first quarter of the lease that you just signed—and ask for a rent reduction. See how that goes. Yeah. If the bookstore wants to become a non-profit bookstore, let's file that paperwork and do this thing. (I'll help!) But this odd public-private partnership "public good" conception of a commercial business is giving me the willies a little. (Cruel of me? Maybe! Libertarian? Ugh, possibly. I know.) It is a public good, technically! It's a great thing! But if you're not keeping them in business and I'm not keeping them in business… well, something's broken, right?

It's also disconcerting that the owners of the bookstore are unrepresented. Just like in court, in real estate the man who has himself for a client is represented by a fool, or however that dumb saying goes. Get a pro bono lawyer and a pro bono commercial broker, price your options and be prepared to break your lease if Cooper Union won't help you. Posturing in public as "we're almost too broke to pay our rent, won't someone please help us" just makes it obvious to your landlord that you probably can't even afford to move out. The bookstore, despite its radical background and all-around utopian terrificness, is a business and it owes it to itself to act like one. It also deserves proficient allies that'll help it survive. Now let's all stop signing Internet petitions and go buy a book.

56 Comments / Post A Comment

David (#192)

… and following best practices in this area, please keep in mind A) the services of a commercial property real estate broker in Manhattan are paid for by the Landlord, not the tenant; B) retain the services of a retail-space broker, not a residential or office broker (the right broker can help you to understand the rent in relation to alternatives or recently completed transactions). And for all those other book stores with leases expiring within the next 24 months– interview at least 4 firms, and retain a broker no later than 18 months prior to your lease expiration. Only tenants with credible move-scenario alternatives will have leverage on their landlords to secure the best renewal rental rates. Finally, keep in mind, Landlords do this (negotiate leases) for a living and are veterans of many lease battles. Tenant's are running a different business– that's why you need a good adviser and broker!

Annie K. (#3,563)

I love it when Choire gets definite and decisive. I can't but agree.

oxla (#12,069)

Why does this have to take such an offensive tone? Keep your Libertarian crap to yourself.

And yes, I know you're being sarcastic, but positive steps should be regarded as such.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@oxla This is St. Mark's Books' third go-round (or maybe I missed some?) of pleading with the community to save them, save them, in recent memory. They're a good bookstore, and I do my bit to support them as often as I get downtown, and bookstores DO need someone, everyone to save them. But I can TOTALLY understand the tone.

Craig Brownson (#4,257)

@dntsqzthchrmn lolz

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@Craig Brownson Face, meet palm.

@oxla Unfortunately I'm not really being sarcastic. At all. I'm sorry you somehow found it offensive that I was gushing about how much I love the bookstore and love bookstores?

Tulletilsynet (#333)

@Choire Sicha
Let this be a lesson to us all. If you haven't memorized all previous Awl posts and at least the last couple weeks' comments, EVERYTHING IS BOOBYTRAPPED! HH;SLDKJFA;SLKDJF!!!!

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@Tulletilsynet They like dangerous precedents, generally.

SidAndFinancy (#4,328)

"however that dumb saying goes"

That dumb saying?! I'll have you know, sir, that "dumb saying" was given to us by no less an authority than Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, he who also gave us:

Early to bed,
And early to rise,
I'll leave that
To the other guys.

(Or however that dumb saying goes.)

Toby Bryce@twitter (#10,953)

Thanx Awl. DO NOT LIKE when facts intrude on Monday morning Twitter activisms.

(Facts aside I do not regret signing [and "sharing"!] and think CU could help a brother out.)

gregorg (#30)

You know which brothers CU helps out, @Toby Bryce@twitter? Every one of its students, who get free tuition because of the income the school derives from its investments. SMB wants to run its legacy business, it should figure out how to make its nut. And maybe that doesn't involve selling books in a prime corner space.

mishaps (#5,779)

I find the petition a little weird too, and I count St Mark's as a formative bookshop in my young booknerd years.

I went in there the last time I was in the neighborhood, specifically because I knew they were hurting financially, ready to drop some cash. (Which I did, though less than I'd expected to.) I noticed a couple of things while I was there.

1. The stench of failure is, I'm sorry, already hanging over the place. It was nearly empty on a weekend late-afternoon, and the cashier thanked me profusely for my purchase.

2. Comparing it to other NY bookstores I frequent, I was struck by how very little it has changed since I haunted the stacks 15-20 years ago looking for the hot new literary theory titles. But back then you HAD to go to St Mark's, because online commerce didn't exist, or was not as omnipresent.

It seems to me like the best bookstores that have survived or come of age in this new era have evolved ways of keeping themselves destinations – everything from coordinating bookgroups to delivery to onsite author events to discounts to book clubs that order through them. Compare McNally Robinson, or Greenlight, or even the Strand, for God's sake, to St. Mark's, and ask yourself if this institution, which LET ME BE CLEAR I would miss bitterly were it to vanish, can really say that the landlord is the heart of the problem here.

KenWheaton (#401)

@mishaps Are you implying that a book store should have to run itself like some filthy business and should change with the times? How dare you!?!?

@mishaps St. Marks Bookshop scares me because every time I walk in I feel that an alarm will go off because I’m not intellectual enough to be browsing/shopping there.

(Confession, I work at Barnes & Noble, but twice this week I sent people to St. Marks b/c I thought that they would probably have the book they were looking for. So, um, yay me for helping?)

mishaps (#5,779)

@happymisanthrope still, scaring off potential customers is a risky business strategy for a bookstore these days, don't you think?

Tulletilsynet (#333)

You may ask,
how did this petition get started?
I'll tell you:
I don't know.
But here, in our little village of Anatevka,
you might say
every one of us is a for-profit business asking for a subsidy.
Petitions … ! Petitions!

mishaps (#5,779)


If I was a landlord….

@mishaps Completely! It's also one of the reasons why I send people to McNally Jackson and Idlewild more often than not because I prefer the atmosphere to St. Marks.

SeanP (#4,058)

@mishaps I think that petitions in general are kind of a waste of time, because who really pays attention to them? But I don't think the idea of renegotiating the lease is so absurd – it happens fairly often. The key to success is some kind of credible threat to 1) break the lease or 2) just go out of business. Option 1 won't work unless it costs the landlord more to obtain redress than he would lose by renegotiating the lease, obviously, so you have to have your accounting and legal bases covered. Which makes it rather odd that they are without representation.

SeanP (#4,058)

@SeanP Forgot to add that the tl;dr version is: yeah, this kinda is how leasing works.

mishaps (#5,779)

@SeanP I don't disagree that renegotiating your lease is something a tenant should pursue – even pursue with petitions, I guess, if that's your thing. But wouldn't, you know, doing something that would attract new customers also be a good idea, and possibly a step you'd take before a petition? That's my point.

flossy (#1,402)

In my day, we had a name for a place you got books that was a considered a public good: a "library."

And yes, we walked uphill to get there, both ways, etc.

iantenna (#5,160)

this is also exactly why kickstarter makes my head hurt with contradictory thoughts.

@iantenna YES. I do not want to get started on that so I just don't. :)

Jim Behrle@twitter (#13,157)

The best way to keep your favorite bookstore around is to buy books there regularly

iantenna (#5,160)

i don't know the entire ins and outs of commercial real estate law in nyc so i apologize if i'm way off base here and i agree with the sentiment that a lot of the onus is upon st mark's to, you know, be a business that pays its debts but… tax law often allows large scale property owners far too much leverage to write off empty buildings as a loss against their other, profitable, properties. this, in turn, allows them the freedom to refuse negotiations with struggling tenants.

sharilyn (#4,599)

I LOVE St Marks. It's a great place to wander and think about things, and I prefer to browse for books than search online for them. But I haven't bought a book there in a while. I'm now reading most books on my iPod, because it is much easier to carry around. And e-books are (generally) cheaper.

@sharilyn And right here is the problem.

deepomega (#1,720)

Choire, this is the internet. You're either a full on libertarian or you're a full-on socialist who wants government grants to keep unpopular bookstores open. PICK A SIDE.

dailycannibal (#75,825)

@deepomega We need simple choices these days. Our attention spans can deal with…what was the question?

NinetyNine (#98)

"How to Owner-Operate for Dummies" coming this fall from Harper Stu– OR Books. Available at finer bookstores everywhere that aren't St. Mark's.

Matt (#26)

You two.

alorsenfants (#139)

When I was in town last month, I had a most enjoyable visit to McNally Jackson, which I'd never found before, and on other trips I have admired Three Lives.
It could be that this bookstore isn't good enough? Down here in l'il ol' Charlottesville, there is a most attractive independent store on our Downtown Mall. John Grisham does book signings there every time he publishes; well-heeled landed gentry have house accounts.
But I don't go there. It's not because I don't like paying full price. It's because they don't have the important books half the time. I'll ask the very nice owner, who I'm betting is married to someone wealthy who uses the store as a write-off, about a title, and she always goes: "We can order it for you! It'll come in a few weeks!" Come on — when I can get it through Amazon and its network of independent sellers for half the money in a quarter of the time?
Sounds like these people could have a similar problem!

MatthewGallaway (#1,239)

They should move to Washington Heights.

City_Dater (#2,500)


Likely they would sooner go under than leave that corner…

But moving to a bookstore-impoverished neighborhood could probably save them. There's a temporary second-hand volunteer-run bookshop in Washington Heights that's clearly filling a void — people are talking about finding a way to make it a permanent fixture.

Art Yucko (#1,321)

They could move to Park Slope and rebrand as St.Park's.

Matt (#26)

They could switch to exclusively digital sales via Tumblr and rebrand as St.Marco's.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Heights' ass, they should move to Inwood.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@Tulletilsynet Books? in Inwood? Ask the Libreria about that.

muddler (#74,010)

Only capitalism can be allowed to decide anything! An idea that's working out great for the people of NYC so far. Isn't "If you can't pay whatever rent we're charging, get out" a great motto for a city? Choire Sicha, you're a stooge, you don't know which way is up, dude…

As someone who helps their spouse deal wihth booksotres, I ahve to say that learning how inefficient bookstores are, how little dedication on the highest levels etc has been a huge learning curve.

Want you book to get in a bookstore? Well, first call to find out who the book reader is. Then you learn that that person only comes in the store on alternate Weds., from 2:05 Pm to 3:45 PM.

Call 'em at that time, and eventually, after a six month period of calling, they may not be at lunch or in a meeting. You chit chat and sell them on the books yo represent They cheerfully agree to look over the book(s) you represent. You send them the books.

Six weeks later, as requested, you call back. You ask if they got the books and if their reaction was favorable.

Most of the time the reaction is: Have we spoken about these books? And I don't remember if we spoke, or if I asked you to send me books, or if I read them.

Meanwhile, Amazon takes any and every authors' books. Sells them 24/7, even while we sleep. The delivery to customers is free or very cheap. And we in the book business are treated rather decently, not as an afterthought.

muddler (#74,010)

Amazon may be open 24/7, lady, but you can't go there on your lunch break.

I actually do buy books at St. Mark's regularly (even Theory–"mishaps," you should have actually read the books, you might have learned something!). But the truth is that all the $16 paperbacks in the world aren't going to allow this bookstore to pay the rent that, say, a bank branch or a Duane Reade can (what did you think was going to be there next?). So the question becomes, can we rely on something other than pure economics to save the place? Can the public, through public action, have a say in the appearance of the landscape of its own daily life?

The answer to this question, luckily, is yes! It's a citizen action about the public landscape when you vote for a politician who supports low income housing. Or, it's a public action (successful, so far) to fight the arrival of WalMart in New York City. In fact, lots of cities, town, and communities make and act upon decisions about what kinds of businesses they want in their downtowns and Main Streets. Of course, many don't–traveled across America by highway recently? Housing developments and strip malls–economics unbridled. So which places do you like to visit and spend time in? Come on, Sicha, I know you love those McDonald's-free Hamptons…

Ha! The… Hamptons?? I have barely set foot in the last decade.

BUT, YES. These are very very good questions. I do not want another damn drug store at the corner of 3rd and 9th. It's ABSURD.

dailycannibal (#75,825)

Bingo. Well done, Choire.

esquared (#888)

but cooper union isn't your typical landlord. cooper union is trying to charge market rate to st. mark's bookshop, yet they pay no property taxes to the city. if this a residential rental, c u won't be able to charge at market rate — it'd be subsidized, much like the j-51 at stuy town (and look what happened there). but since this is a commercial rental, c u is getting away with charging at market rate. a greedy landlord is greedy, regardless if they're an institution for the advancement of arts and sciences or just your run of the mill out for the buck sleazy landlords. i suppose the cooper union apologistas would rather see a: pick one — cupcake, ramen, fro-yo joint, a bank, starbucks, duane reade — in place of st. mark's bookshop; they're the only one who can be a business that can act like one and can be in business to keep c u in business. instead of saying 'stop signing petitions and go buy a book', how about 'sign the petition and buy a book'. at least by signing a petition is an indication of public's will and spreads awareness on st. mark's bookshops plight to stay in business. and once people are aware of it, then maybe, and hopefully, they will buy a book.

Cooper Union's last full president's report (which is from 08????)

At the beginning of this decade, we launched a Master Plan
to put The Cooper Union on a sound financial footing and
ensure that Peter Cooper’s legacy and vision would continue well into the future. This undertaking is now coming
to a successful conclusion; we ended the 2007–2008
fiscal year with the first balanced budget in more than two
decades, and we are in perhaps the best overall financial
shape in the history of the institution.


This undertaking represents the continuation of a financial strategy that reaches back to the origins of the college.
From the beginning it was clear that The Cooper Union’s
commitment to awarding gifted students with full-tuition
scholarships would require not only the generous assistance of
its supporters, but also that the college be capable
of generating revenue in its own right. To that end, Peter
Cooper included retail space in his plans for the Foundation Building;
since then the college has drawn much of its
revenue from commercial real estate assets such as the
Chrysler Building, which was built on land given to Cooper
Union by the Cooper-Hewitt family.

The Master Plan, the current implementation of this
strategy, involves the development of three properties—
our new academic building at 41 Cooper Square and two
college properties leased to outside developers. The first
of the leased properties, 26 Astor Place, is now a 22-story
residential tower developed by The Related Companies
and designed by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates. Next, a
long-term lease agreement for 51 Astor Place was completed in 2008,
with an initial payment of $97 million. The
building to occupy that space will contain 70,000 gross
square feet of academic space and 362,000 gross square
feet of commercial space.

petey (#8,666)

you know… I had this reaction at first too. I was thinking all Ron Paul sink or swim for a second, but then I thought about what bank or whatever that would replace it. Not sure I even believe in holding a commercial business below market, but the petition seemed like a good way to call attention to their situation anyway. Buy a book, yes.

esquared (#888)

An Open Letter to Cooper Union
Dear Cooper Union:

Today you are meeting with the owners of the St. Mark's Bookshop to discuss a rent reduction that would keep this invaluable business afloat. So far, the owners say, you have not been "particularly sympathetic" to the situation.

You weren't particularly sympathetic in 1994 when you leased a gas station to the Bowery Bar, helping to set in motion a tsunami of hyper-gentrification. Bowery Bar's neighbor (gone now) put a lighted sign in his window saying, "Cooper Union: How could you do this to us?" More protesters responded, "Don't Party on the Poor." But the party raged on.

You weren't particularly sympathetic in 2000 when you leased the Astor Place parking lot for a luxury hotel that turned into a luxury condo tower–one that opened the door for more massive development in the East Village. One of your own faculty members at the time told the Observer, "[Peter Cooper] would die again if he knew what was going on. For him to find out what his legacy turned out to be, he would be appalled. He was never one for pure mercenary gain. It’s all about money, money, money."

You weren't particularly sympathetic in 2001 when you tried to demap Taras Shevchenko Place and the Ukrainians of the East Village fought back.

You weren't particularly sympathetic in 2004 when you painted over a popular 9/11 mural to make space for advertising on 35 Cooper Square. That little building was later sold to developers and demolished against more protests.

You aren't being particularly sympathetic now in your current plans to turn Astor Place into a corporate office park. The neighborhood has been fighting those plans for the past decade to no avail.

Even though, as we understand it, you make a mint on the Chrysler Building, which stands on your property and reportedly costs the city $8 million every year, you keep finding ways to make more money from the East Village. As New York Magazine put it, you have "helped to corporatize a once raffish and still artistically fertile area." People are angry. We have lost too much. We cannot lose one of the best bookstores in the city–a place that fuels the soul in an increasingly soulless neighborhood.

As of this writing, more than 24,000 people have signed the petition to save St. Mark's Bookshop. Will you be sympathetic to that enormous outcry? I hope you will surprise us and grant their request, but your track record does not inspire optimism.

A few years ago, I was inspired by a story in the documentary film Twilight Becomes Night. A group of Upper West Siders saved their local pharmacy from eviction by calling the bank that planned to move into the space, and telling them, "We will not use your services." The bank backed off. Suba Pharmacy still stands. So here's an idea: If St. Mark's Books is forced to close due to unyielding rent, whatever business moves into their space at 31 Third Avenue will be boycotted and protested by the thousands of people who read this blog and all the blogs connected to it. Nothing will thrive there–no bank, no cupcake shop, no kitten adoption center.

I'm sorry, but I can't be more sympathetic.

Vanishing New York

dailycannibal (#75,825)

By all means, let's allocate all property by plebiscite or petition. Please post a photo of your home. I might want it.

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