Collective Voices Save Bookstore
Written by
Rachel Aydt
January 2012
Written by
Rachel Aydt
January 2012

Several months ago I received an email asking me to sign an online petition to save my local bookstore in downtown Manhattan, St. Mark’s Bookshop, where E. 9th Street meets 3rd Avenue. Why did it need saving? Because Cooper Union College, the organization that leases the building, wanted to raise their $20,000 per month rent. Yes-- per month. The initial petition was asking for Cooper Union to compromise. At first, they didn’t budge, but support kept pouring in from neighbors, NY ex-pats, and local politicians. Thousands and thousands of people spread the message through FB and Twitter, and ultimately the book- loving community was able to pull this one out of the hat.

We were lucky—not everyone is, as my friend (and your guest editor this week) Kathleen Sweeney can attest to. Her local bookstore in Cold Spring, NY just closed shop, leaving a gaping hole in the community.

I often write about the sustainability of brick and mortar bookstores for the publishing trade Publishing Perspectives. I’m inspired by small business owners who have turned up their nose to “progress” in order to keep their focus directly on customer service and the power of the human-to-human interaction of book buying and selling. What’s so inspiring about this save by my community is that collectively we’d had it; we weren’t going to put up with one more franchise elbowing a dear neighbor out of business. Local bookstores have the power to be the heart and soul of a contemplative community. We didn’t need a third or fifth Starbucks; we didn’t need another Banana Republic or Gap. There’s a complacency-- a kind of brainwashed numbness-- that can kick in when your hometown is being steamrolled by strip malls. When there’s something worth saving it’s important to roll up your sleeves and participate. Write and sign those petitions, talk to your neighbors, write letters, show up with signs, hold special events and fundraisers… it took all of these efforts to sustain St. Mark’s Bookshop. Now comes the hard part; opening up our wallets to buy books there. 

It was thrilling to receive this email from one of the chief organizers: "Together we have scored a victory for the St. Mark’s Bookshop and the Lower East Side!  Cooper Union has agreed to a new one-year lease to reduce their monthly rent to $17,500.  The bookshop has a $2,500/month rent reduction and Cooper Union will forgive back rent owed. This is a $37,500 win for the bookstore. We won through a lot of organizing -- including your signature among the 44,128 on our online petition. Thank you!"

Do you have any bookstores in your community that are in jeopardy of closing? What can you do to facilitate change in your own backyard?

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  • Deborah Batterman

    Somehow I'm not surprised re: the poetry/indie bookstore connection. And I find it very reassuring. Thanks for the link, Kathleen. 

  • Kathleen Sweeney

    Here's a piece on the role of poetry readers in galvanizing indie bookstores...who knew?

    “People who read poetry are the unsung customer base for independent bookstores.”

  • Deborah Batterman

    This was a big win, on so many levels.  Local, independent bookstores indeed have the 'power to be the heart and soul of a contemplative community,' as you eloquently put it. Imagine that extra dose of pleasure it will give me to use the gift certificate to the St. Mark's Bookshop I was lucky enough to win!

  • Louisa Calio

    A great saving it we saved ourselves!

  • Patricia Sands

    What a timely post and how wonderful to hear the St. Mark's story. Just this week our neighbourhood book store announced it is closing after 47 years of outstanding informed and personal service to its loyal customers. As the oldest remaining indie bookstore in Toronto, it's a sad time indeed. However no petitions or phone campaigns can budge an uncaring, greedy landlord who is increasing the rent by 26%. A pox on him! 

  • Joan Aghevli

     It was heart-warming to read about St Mark's Bookstore being saved by community action. I live in Washington DC and we have seen many fine institutions closed because their rent went up, and some, like The Avalon movie theater, saved by a community's unwillingness to let it go. My local bookstore is a legend: Politics and Prose, started by Barbara Meade and Carla Cohen in 1984. It is so much more than a bookstore, with a level of loyalty among its customers that is most unusual. The stream of author events there is amazing. You could easily get a fine education by attending regularly. I was privileged to speak there on Saturday january 7 with my co-author of The Poet's Daughter: Malek o'Shoara Bahar of Iran and the Immortal Song of Freedom, Parvaneh Bahar. The atmosphere is so warm and encouraging. It was wonderful. When Carla died, the bookstore was up for sale and we all feared its demise, but thank goodness, it was purchased by energetic new owners. We need these institutions at the center of our lives. Big box and chains just don't do it. Congratulations on being one voice in 44,128 that saved St Mark's.