Save the Indie Bookstore! But how?

St. Mark's BookshopMacy Halford, book blogger for The New Yorker, asked today, “Should we fight to save indie bookstores?” A perfectly reasonable question. If you like indie bookstores, why wouldn’t you fight to save them? And if you don’t, then why bother? Halford tells of discovering an online petition to save one of her favorite bookstores, St. Mark’s Bookshop in New York City. She signed the petition, but I didn’t. Why? The petition is aimed at St. Mark’s landlord (Cooper Union), and says this:

“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.”

Why on Earth would I not sign this? I love indie bookstores. I own an indie bookstore, for goodness’ sake. But the 20,250 people who have signed this petition so far are effectively taking St. Mark’s Bookshop’s problem and making it the landlord’s problem. It’s tough owning a bookstore these days — just ask Borders, which closed its Billings, MT store for good yesterday. But why should the people who own the building take responsibility for that? Oh, sure, having your tenant go out of business isn’t a good thing. But if rents went down every time a tenant had problems, there wouldn’t be any rental properties left.

Sales of new books at my store have been declining for the last three years, so what did we do? We moved to a larger building with lower rent. We added toys and a tea bar. We put in a big humidor full of cigars. And we just had the best summer in the 25-year history of the store. Moving a bookstore is a pain in the neck; I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. But sometimes that’s what it takes.

I can’t help but think that if 20,250 people really want to keep St. Mark’s Bookshop, those people should forget about petitions and put their money where their mouth is. Think if each of those people bought one more book a month from the shop. With an average gross profit of about $5.00 per book, that would be over $100,000 per month in fresh profits! Problems all gone!

But realistically, I don’t think that’s going to happen. Even if those folks did all troop in and buy a book, the majority of them would soon lose interest. And many of those people aren’t going to be going in anyway. As I write this, the five most recent signatures are from Newark, NJ; Los Angeles, CA; Pomonok, NY; Scotts Valley, CA; and Whitefish Bay, WI. Only one of those five is even from New York. Granted, if you keep on looking, there are plenty of New Yorkers, but there are also plenty of people from other parts of the country.

Isn’t this a local issue? If I happened to own a commercial building here in Red Lodge, Montana, I wouldn’t take kindly to a bunch of New Yorkers telling me what to charge in rent. I can’t imagine why someone who owns a building in New York would really care what I think.

There are tradeoffs in any facility. We could drop the rent at our store to less than half of what it is now by moving into one of the little towns nearby. That would also drop foot traffic by 80% and take our sales down the toilet. That’s why those towns don’t have bookstores. On the flip side, we could increase our rent to ten times what it is now by moving into a mall or an airport. Foot traffic would go through the roof. But that’s not the kind of store I want to have. My wife and I made the conscious decision not to do that.

I don’t live in New York. I’ve never visited St. Mark’s Bookshop. I don’t know why their business is in danger, although I can guess. I don’t know the solution to their problem. But the bottom line is that it is their problem, not their landlord’s.


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