St. Mark’s Bookshop is starting another chapter at new E. Third St. home

Co-owners Terry McCoy, left, and Bob Contant at St. Mark’s Bookshop’s new location, on E. Third St. just west of Avenue A.   Photo by DUSICA SUE MALESEVIC
Co-owners Terry McCoy, left, and Bob Contant at St. Mark’s Bookshop’s new location, on E. Third St. just west of Avenue A. Photo by DUSICA SUE MALESEVIC

BY DUSICA SUE MALESEVIC  |  Can a business be at square one after 37 years? For Bob Contant and Terry McCoy, the owners of St. Mark’s Bookshop, now at its fourth location, the answer is yes.

“We’re really in a start-up situation here,” Contant said. “We moved out of our old neighborhood. This is an entirely different neighborhood and it takes time for people to discover you.”

The new store has been at its new location, 136 E. Third St. near Avenue A, since July 19. St. Mark’s Bookshop was forced to move from its previous spot at 31 Third Ave., which it occupied for 21 years, due to high rent.

At about 1,300 square feet, the current store is almost half the size of the last location, which was 2,700 square feet. But it boosts a unique and sleek modern design — tall white shelving that seems to undulate throughout the store — courtesy of Clouds Architecture Office, which did the work pro bono.

“I think what it does is it draws people in,” said Contant, who manned the cash register and the phone, and answered people’s book queries, while talking to a reporter earlier this month. “There’s a certain flow to the way the shelves are arranged, and rather than be the traditional kind of box store, this offers a different kind of aesthetic.”

Cloud Architecture contributed $500 to the Indiegogo campaign for the store’s relocation, Contant said, as the rain hit the pavement outside.

The new storefront is located in the New York City Housing Authority’s First Houses. It took a few months to find the location, he said, but the city, which owns the property, wanted them — in contrast with their former landlord, The Cooper Union, which wanted a different business, one that could pay higher rent. This is similar to playing casino games in Cool Cat Casino sites from here in cool cat casino online sites.

Contant said one reason they’re happy with the new location is that they left Third Ave., which has become “corporate,” in his view, and is dominated by New York University student housing.

It’s a far cry from the East Village scene in the ’70s. Contant moved from Maryland to New York City in 1972 and was working at the East Side Bookstore on St. Mark’s Place along with McCoy, who had moved from Albuquerque in 1968. That bookstore had a certain notoriety because it sold the Whole Earth Catalogue and underground comics.

McCoy, Contant and three others worked at the bookstore, which had an absentee owner who came in and wrote checks, but did little else.

Once the chemistry of this group clicked, Contant recounted, they decided to open their own bookstore.

“We thought among ourselves, ‘Why do this for someone else? Why don’t we do it for ourselves?’ ” Contant said.

The five pooled their resources, which wasn’t much, $2,000 each. With that $10,000, the bookstore was born at 13 St. Mark’s Place. (Two of the former partners have since dropped out and one remains as an owner, but is not active in running the business.)

In the East Village in 1977, everyone was poor, Contant recalled.

“However, you could work a minimum-wage job, which was about $2.50 an hour. You could still have your own apartment,” explained Contant, whose place back then cost $63 a month. “And you could still eat out and you could have a drink at the bar and you could date — go to the movies, which were like 75 cents.”

Next door to their bookstore at 13 St. Mark’s Place, which rented for $375 a month, was Paul McGregor’s Haircutters. (Paul McGregor, who has been credited with inventing the shag, was a stylist to the stars and later owned clubs.)

“The street had a lot of cachet,” said Contant, referring to St. Mark’s Place.

However, it took awhile for the bookshop to establish itself since there were many bookstores on Eighth St., and along Fourth Ave. between Eighth and 14th Sts., which was at that time known as Book Row.

“Bookstores were like Starbucks,” Contant said of that era. “They were everywhere in New York.”

After 10 years at that first location, Contant said, the bookshop was outgrowing it. Now there was a punk and art scene that had made the neighborhood vibrant.

“On Friday and Saturday nights the store would be so crowded that we would have someone at the door,” he said.

So when a larger location across the street was offered to Contant and McCoy, they took it and moved to 12 St. Mark’s Place.

“That was the first hard lesson we learned because we were undercapitalized to make the move and the cost overruns were significant,” Contant said.

But business did not really increase. At that time, in the ’80s, the book business was a different beast. Inventory was done by hand and the store carried a lot of overstock.

“We would have to order 10 copies of Camus’ book ‘The Stranger,’ for example, just to have enough to last us for awhile,” he said.

The bookshop developed a cultural critical theory section. Contant explained that somebody on staff was a post-structuralist philosophy professor. The professor had a free hand to order, and it paid off, Contant said, as the store became known for its selections.

“It was probably the best situation we ever had,” said Contant, “to be a vital part of the community on St. Mark’s Place.”

There are too many stories to tell.

“William Burroughs would come in every Saturday and buy crappy science fiction books because he had a crush on one of the guys of that worked at the bookstore,” Contant recalled.

Then there was Ted Berrigan, a poet, who lived on the block.

“You could smoke in public places,” he said. “And Ted was a chain smoker and he would go around the store with a cigarette and the ashes would just fall everywhere.”

Contant was always worried a book would catch fire.

“You had to sort of watch to make sure he didn’t put a cigarette down somewhere,” he said.

But the business was not going well after the bookshop moved from 13 to 12 St. Mark’s Place. Contant said they had put a “Going Out of Business” sign in the window, and The Wall Street Journal did an article about the store, which caught the eye of Robert Rodale, of Rodale Press. The article mentioned Susan Sontag, who Rodale happened to have met. Rodale loaned them money to keep the store afloat.

In 1989, St. Mark’s Bookshop moved to Third Ave. near Ninth St. In 2007, Barnes & Noble closed its Astor Place store and Contant said, as a result, they got a spike in business.

“We thought we would be O.K.,” he said, “until the economy crashed in 2008. The lack of discretionary income, stagnating wages, books being more expensive and outlets such as Amazon have all hurt the bookstore business.”

Rising rent at the Third Ave. location led to the move to the new site. Many supporters pitched in to help with the relocation, donating money, signing petitions and offering their services.

“We do have an identity in people’s minds,” McCoy said, when asked why he thinks so many people have lent a hand.

“We’re struggling again because…we’ve moved without being properly capitalized,” Contant said. “We’ve had to borrow money. It makes it difficult to do what we would like to do, which is develop a lot more inventory in the store.”

But Contant and McCoy have been through this struggle before.

“When we moved from St. Mark’s Place to Third Ave, our business dropped,” Contant said. “Because we moved around the corner, people didn’t know where we went. It just happens in New York that way. People are addicted to certain blocks they walk on. If you’re not on their route, they don’t know you exist.

“It’s incrementally getting better,” he assured. “There are slow days and there are good days. That’s to be expected.”