St. Mark’s Bookshop Faces Tough Summer—But Staying Open
A sign in the window encouraging customers not to browse St. Mark’s Bookshop and then buy at Amazon—“Find it here, buy it here, keep us here”—which it borrowed from Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., led to a story in The East Villager late last week that has been widely tweeted: “E -books and online ordering beating pulp out of an indie store.” Unfortunately, like many things in this world, it’s both true and not true.
Yes, online discounting and e-books have been cutting into sales for booksellers across the country, but so has the Great Recession. And those things are compounded at this time of year for the iconic New York City bookstore. “Summer has traditionally been the slowest time of year for us with school being out of session,” says Bob Contant, co-owner of St. Marks, adding, “this summer is worst than most.”
Belt tightening last fall may have helped some. In October, the store laid off its part-time employees and cut hours for full-time staffers. Business in May and June were up over April, but down from last year. “Business isn’t really coming back,” says Contant, who believes that the most important thing affecting the book business as a whole is that the leisure time people spent reading books, they’re now spending on the Internet.
But Contant has no interest in adding sidelines like some stores have: candy at the Strand, or even writerly mugs with authors faces. “I’m such a purist; we don’t have any sidelines,” he says. “What we’re doing is what we’ve always done: fine tune. We’re trying to be more receptive to our customers.”
Nor has it made changes to its product mix, which includes strong sections on critical theory and poetry. “For a lot of our customers, these are books they can’t find anywhere else,” says Contant, who singles out books like Living in the End Times (Verso) by Slavoj Zizek and Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York (Ginko Press) by James and Karla Murray, which isn’t available as an e-book. The store’s other top sellers include: Tina Fey’s Bossypants and the paperbacks of Patti Smith’s Just Kids, Keith Richards’s Life, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.
Will fine tuning be enough? Contant’s also hoping that landlord Cooper Union will meet with him to discuss a reduction in rent.