A Garbage Can Model Of Indie Bookselling

The big news in the literary world (especially, the NYC-centric version of it) these past few days seems to be that St. Marks Bookshop is having trouble with its rent and a petition (using MoveOn’s recently released SignOn tool!) has been started that asks its landlord, Cooper Union, to significantly lower the rent. This is the argument being made in the petition:

The St. Mark’s Bookshop has a long tradition in the Lower East Side and serves an admirable and increasingly rare function. St. Mark’s is struggling to pay the market rent that Cooper Union is charging them at 31 3rd Ave. A significant rent concession by Cooper Union could save this irreplaceable neighborhood institution.

Macy Halford of The New Yorker’s Book Bench asks if the fight to save indie book stores is one worth waging. Sam Riley at The Rumpus replies without argument that “yes,” it is a noble fight. I generally agree with the idea that independent bookstores are a net good for society and that they are worth working to preserve. But like The Awl’s Choire Sicha, I think the lower the rent petition is the wrong way to go about saving St. Marks in particular and indie bookstores in general.

The problem is with the ask of the petition. Not only is unilaterally requesting a lowering in the rent an unrealistic solution, as Sicha suggests, but it doesn’t do anything to change the structural problems facing St. Marks and similar stores. But what can be done? Sicha suggests St. Marks consider becoming a non-profit or getting the help of some pro bono experts to see if they have any reasonable legal options regarding their lease. Those are possibilities.

Two thoughts come to my mind, which I admit are not quite visionary and perhaps not even realistic. If so, I can accept that my own criticism of the petition can be thrown back at me. As we all know, it’s usually easier to spot problems than to create solutions (if the two concepts are even connected in the garbage can, that is).

1) St. Marks co-owner Terry McCoy suggested to Publishers Weekly that recent economic conditions had caused the rent problem. “Sales have declined and the rent is becoming burdensome,” McCoy told PW. “We had a dreadful August. Hurricane Irene kind of put a cap on it.” If it is just a recent financial problem and not a result of larger structural issues, perhaps it would be more effective to simply fundraise for the store to help them with their burden. The rent is said to be $20,000 a month. As of my writing this, nearly 18,000 people have signed the petition. If each one of them pledged to donate $1 a month, St. Marks would easily be able to cover its expenses.

2) For bloggers and other social media discussers, if they’d like to support St. Marks, perhaps they could link to St. Marks’ online store when discussing or suggesting books instead of competitors like Amazon. Of course, this raises the question of whether St. Marks should be helped over other independent bookstores. But disregarding that larger issue, concerted effort to send more actual customers to St. Marks could only help it deal with its financial issues.

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