Read it and weep, Cooper tells store: Only 1 month relief


By Aidan Gardiner

The Cooper Union said it would not grant its tenant St. Mark’s Bookshop a rent reduction despite the outpouring of community support for the ailing outlet, and instead offered a different deal that would allow the store to pay back one month’s rent over an extended period of time.

The bookstore’s co-owners met with Cooper Union Vice President TC Westcott on Tuesday afternoon and were informed of the college’s decision. Bob Contant, one of the co-owners, called the meeting “disappointing.” Contant and his business partner, Terry McCoy, along with various community leaders had lobbied for a rent reduction of $5,000 to $15,000, but the school’s administrators reportedly declined the request because of the college’s own financial difficulties.

“They’re not making any kind of financial adjustments,” Contant said. “I don’t know where that leaves us to tell you the truth.”

Contant is slated to meet with Cooper Union’s new president, Jamshed Bharucha, on Thursday.

The store’s sales have increased by roughly 20 percent since interest in its struggle surged over summer, said McCoy. He said that the boost is likely to die off, and it’s unclear what the store’s financial situation will be in the future given the college’s unwillingness to reduce its rent.

As of press time, Cooper Union officials couldn’t comment on the college’s financial standing. Administrators said the school was running a deficit and couldn’t afford to forgo the $60,000 a year that a rent decrease for St. Mark’s Bookshop would cost, according to others who met with the school officials on Tuesday.

Since last year, St. Mark’s Bookshop has endured a “perfect storm,” as one employee characterized it. The plummeting economy dragged its sales down roughly 35 percent since 2008. According to the store’s lease with Cooper Union, they were due for a rent increase, which pushed them into an even worse financial situation.

The bookshop dramatically downsized its staff and slashed salaries. The remaining eight staff have each taken cuts in both hours and pay. The two co-owners have started drawing on their Social Security benefits to get by.

The bookstore has until the end of its lease in 2017 to pay for the rent deferment. Contant said that while that may be of little help to them while sales are strong, come February and March when they tend to experience a slump, one month’s rent could be a relief.

This newspaper first published an article in June about St. Mark’s Bookshop’s financial difficulties, spurring community interest in helping keep the store afloat.

McCoy said he and Contant originally tried to convince their landlord by using financial data, but realizing it wasn’t having enough traction, they changed their strategy last year and argued that the bookstore is a neighborhood landmark that deserved to be saved.

Activists, authors and elected officials have since joined together to pressure Cooper Union to decrease St. Mark’s Bookshop’s rent.

The Cooper Square Committee started an online petition that has collected roughly 44,000 signatures from supporters, including author Salman Rushdie and celebrated poet Alice Notley.

“I have been very disturbed by the thought that you may force the St. Mark’s Bookshop to close by imposing rents on them which they cannot pay,” Rushdie wrote in a letter to Cooper Union President Bharucha. “To destroy one of the city’s last, great independent stores for the sake of what to you would be a paltry increase in income would be unforgivable.”

Representatives from the committee met with Bharucha on Tuesday morning and gave him a large box full of all the signatures they’ve collected and several notable letters urging him to agree to a rent reduction.

Joyce Ravitz, who chairs the Cooper Square Committee, said she believed Cooper Union could easily agree to a rent reduction and forgo the $60,000 it would cost each year.

“Just like I don’t tell the bookshop how to run their business, I won’t tell the college how to run theirs,” Ravitz said, though adding, “That’s a lot of money for me, but not a college that size.”

Dodge Landesman, who sits on Community Board 6 (which covers the East Side north of 14th St.) but lives near the bookstore, said before the Tuesday meeting that he planned on organizing a rally in the near future.

“You rarely have a bookshop with such history and such character,” Landesman said. “It shows what this neighborhood once was and still is. St. Mark’s is the neighborhood bookshop.”

Ravitz said she’d continue to advocate on the bookstore’s behalf.

“Our point is that we’re a community organization,” Ravitz said, “and the community needs a bookstore.”