In 1977, five men were working at a failing bookstore on St Mark’s Place when they decided to pool what little money they had and launch their own venture. Nearly 40 years later, as print continues to decline, St Mark’s Bookstore is still alive and fighting against gentrification and digitalization in the East Village. Their secret? A commitment to providing their creative customers with the specialized inventory they want.
The confidence in their product that they had back in the 70s still holds. A typical October morning sees Terence McCoy, one of the co-founders, sat behind the counter waiting to assist the first customers of the day. “We felt that a bookstore need not fail; that if you got it right and had a sincere approach to stocking the store with books that you felt were worthy of attention, then you would succeed,” he says.
On the relatively quiet block of East 3rd Street just west of Avenue A, the East Village institution has found its fourth home. After raising the funds through a book auction, the store reopened in July 2014. With a simple black paintjob and its name stenciled subtly on the glass window, it would be possible to walk right past St Mark’s Bookshop without a second glance – but few do. Rows upon rows of books welcome the average passerby, demonstrating that print is not dead yet.
Inside the shelves are white, while worn down flagstones cover the floor and a single oversized, exposed bulb dangles at the back of the room. With little else to capture the eye, customers gravitate to the literature as if they have tunnel vision. This crisp morning, a French couple in the corner browse intently side-by-side, their interlocked hands the only outward sign that they’re aware of each other’s presence.
In between the height of counter-culture in the 1960s and the rise of the East Village as a creative epicenter in 1980, this part of the city was derelict. McCoy recounts the shuttered shop fronts, the boarded sidewalks as Second Avenue was torn up to build a subway line. “I was a young, single guy at that time and if you met a girl at a party that you were interested in and you let her know that you lived in the East Village, it disqualified you because no one wanted to have anything to do with someone who lived in the East Village,” he said with a laugh.
Yet it was this shabbiness that enabled the men to start their business; cheaper rents and a community of young, poor, creative souls was the perfect combination for a niche bookstore.
“When we opened, it was a kind of devastated neighborhood but we caught a wave,” McCoy explains, taking a break from the desk at the front of the store. Officially retired, he is still a regular presence within the space and can be seen assisting a customer or managing the cash register.
“In the first few years after we opened, the East Village really was a center of creative ferment and we basically stocked the store with the stock that people wanted,” says McCoy. Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes were commonly asked for by their customers. “It wasn’t necessarily our taste but it’s what the people wanted; we really reflected what was going on.” Their typical customer embraced a culture of intellectual rebellion, meaning a frequent sight in the store was an academic in leather pants.
Four decades on, the neighborhood has become gentrified somewhat but it was still important for the owners of St Mark’s to remain in the area. “The trends come through here, you know about them and can keep up with them,” McCoy says. “The neighborhood has retained that. It is true, I guess, that we’re older and a lot of our clientele are older now, but they’re just as crazy as they always have been.”
Crazy they may be, but the customers all display deference to the books inhabiting the shelves. For a popular cultural hub, there is a blanket of silence that envelops the space, regardless of how many customers browse the shelves. At times, classical music floats unobtrusively through the air but it is just as common to hear nothing but the rustle of pages, the distant laughter of children across the road, the murmur of someone asking for a book. Despite the propped-open front door, there is an almost eerie quiet within the store that makes it possible to forget the Manhattan sprawl just beyond.
The new store was designed to maximize their stock while still allowing for events to take place, resulting in walls covered from floor to ceiling with book shelves. Additional titles are piled high on counters so laden with books that it is hard to see the wood beneath. However, McCoy is still aware that there is a way to go until their stock has the depth that has become associated with the St Mark’s name. “Our strength has always been a well-tended backlist,” he says. However, due to their financial struggles, their recent focus has been more on keeping the store afloat than broadening their literary range. “A lot of the books people are interested in we’re keeping up with just barely, but we don’t have the depth of inventory that we used to.”
Indeed, on closer inspection, the whiteness of the walls is a little too visible. In the emptier sections – psychology, religion – books are placed with the covers facing outwards, so as to take up as much room as possible. While visually striking, it is apparent that the owners would rather be struggling to fit their stock in than fussing around with presentation. More frequently than they’d like, a customer leaves without making a purchase.
“What we’re doing here, really, is we’re patching things together as we try and stay alive,” McCoy says bluntly. “We get people coming here because we have a name, but I think they’re disappointed.” He doesn’t acknowledge a specific reason why, but the more recent reviews on Yelp may be a source. There is praise for the introduction of readings by authors, but also a lot of criticism about the depleted stock – particularly from old regulars.
Nevertheless, it is clear that St Mark’s Bookshop is by no means finished. Even as the owners lament their heyday, the store draws new customers from the surrounding streets. Nicole Matte, a recent 20-something transplant, arrives at the store in gym kit, her cropped hair and youth reflecting the changing nature of the neighborhood’s residents. As she slowly browses the shelves, she explains how she was accustomed to shopping in Barnes & Noble and the Strand but already prefers the intimacy of St Mark’s.
“They were great, but they’re very crowded and it’s a lot of your generic options,” she says. “This is local, small and they have a lot of non-run-of-the-mill books, which I love. I actually work for a magazine and they have some very interesting magazines here that you can’t really find in other places.” As she speaks, her gaze falls back onto the shelves of periodicals. Copies of Vanity Fair and GQ sit next to Baffler and Mincho; a truly eclectic selection.
While finances may be limiting their literary reach, the owners of St Mark’s Bookshop are still optimistic that they will be able to get back on track. They also think that they will be able to remain current due to the energy and ideas in the East Village. “People come in and ask for a book that you haven’t thought of, so you write it down and you look it up and that’s how you find out about things happening – or that are starting to happen” explains McCoy. “That’s what I think this neighborhood brings you. You just have to have your ears open and your antennae up, for those little cultural things that happen here.”
Also published on NYUmag.com