By Peter Kirby
At St. Mark’s Bookshop, shoppers browse with their hands. They pick books up and glance at their back covers. They walk them over to a friend, or a spouse, and look at them together, thumbing through the pages.
Due to the rapid growth of the online bookselling industry, it’s a scene that’s grown increasingly rare. Someone buying a book today is more likely to use a virtual shopping cart than to carry a stack of books to a counter.
St. Mark’s has been a fixture of New York’s Lower East Side for 35 years, opening the doors to its first location on St. Mark’s Place in 1977.
Since then, both the neighborhood and the book industry have been transformed several times over. The owners have watched as trendy bars and restaurants flooded to the area, bringing steadily rising rents with them. In the ‘90s, the Bookshop withstood challenges from big-box sellers such as Barnes & Noble and Borders, then saw many of those stores driven out of business themselves by the rise of digital books and online vendors.
Peter Riley has worked at the bookstore for the past 12 years, starting just a short while after the store had moved to the current location on Third Avenue, between 8th and 9th Streets. He runs the store’s periodical collection, selecting which magazines, journals, and newsletters will be put on display.
It’s this act of choosing, of carefully curating, Riley says, that sets independent bookstores such as St. Mark’s apart, that gives them value in a rapidly shifting industry.
“The owners have always prided themselves on carving out a niche. And that remains the strategy,” he said, “to remain an alternative to what you can find elsewhere.”
“You come because there’s a sensibility and you come because you want to stumble across things that you didn’t know you wanted. You can’t do that with something like an Amazon.”
Evan Haigh, 22, has been shopping at St. Mark’s for the past few years.
“Honestly, if I know what I’m looking for, I’m more likely to buy it online,” he said. “But the reason I come in here is just to browse, to see if anything catches my eye.”
Separating themselves from the world of online retail has become increasingly essential for independent bookstores. Amazon has grown to become the largest retailer of books in the world, holding 29 percent of the retail book market in the first quarter of 2012, according to Bowker Market Research.
As the popularity of sites like Amazon grew, large retail chains tried to compete by continuing to offer a high volume of low cost books. The owners of St. Mark’s understood that this simply wasn’t possible, that in order to survive they would need to emphasize the qualities uniquely offered by independent bookstores.
They looked to emphasize the store’s alternative nature- that customers could go to St. Mark’s to find a careful selection of books that are too odd or that serve too small a niche for the larger chains to carry. Along with this came the sense that the store was a working part of the community, that it offered interactions that simply weren’t possible online or in larger chains.
“They’ve had customers who’ve been with them from the day they opened the front doors,” Riley said. “So the sensibility of the store is informed by the people who shop here… you’re both leading and following, trying to cater to their tastes but guide them at the same time.”
The American Bookseller’s association, a national trade organization for independent bookstores, has tracked modest growth within the industry over the last few years. Since 2005, the organization reports having added more than 400 new member stores, and last month reported that year-to-date sales had risen by 0.3 percent.
The numbers ultimately suggest an industry that is, if not thriving, at least beginning to find ways to sustain itself. Indie shops like St. Mark’s have realized that they need to offer shoppers a unique experience focused on presenting a physical product- something that Amazon can’t match.
Meanwhile, Borders Group filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year, while Barnes & Noble has faced challenges in its attempts to increase its digital presence through its brand of Nook e-readers.
Of course, Riley points out, St. Mark’s Bookshop has benefited from its location. The demand for the types of content the store offers will inevitably be higher in New York City, where shoppers are more likely to be interested in alternative types of literature- including books about art or leftist politics.
“If a place like this ends up getting run out of a place like New York City, then I’m a little despairing,” Riley said.
Still, there’s no denying that the paradigms of the book industry are changing rapidly.
“We’re shifting tectonic plates with respect to the way people interact with books,” Riley said. “I grew up in the pre-Internet era, when there was a tangible object that you craved… You made an investment, first with your dollars and then emotionally, so the stuff just wound up meaning more. And I find now there are these people who have this ‘all you can eat mentality’. They’ve been raised on everything being free.”
“I find that younger people just don’t have that relationship with books [that used to exist], much like they don’t with music,” he said.
The similarities to the music industry, he suggested, didn’t end there. He envisioned a future where physical books would become something akin to vinyl records, a commodity collected and treasured by enthusiasts, but largely abandoned in favor of digital media.
“I don’t think it’s going anywhere, I just think that the physical book industry is going to become a niche industry,” he said. “There are enthusiasts that will never let book culture die entirely, but I don’t know that it will ever be a mass industry the way it was.”
Riley and the other workers at St. Mark’s remain optimistic about the future, but acknowledge that the store’s survival is hardly a certainty.
Last year, the store found itself unable to meet the rising rents demanded by its landlord, Cooper Union. In an attempt to remain open, the bookshop launched a campaign soliciting public support. The owners argued that bookstores like St. Mark’s serve some higher purpose than simply selling books, that they become, essentially, public institutions worth protecting.
Ultimately, an agreement was reached with Cooper Union to extend the lease, lowering the rent from $20,000 a month to $17,000 a month. But that new rate will be subject to new discussion soon, and Riley concedes that the store probably wouldn’t be able to pay a market rate.
“[The owners] have weathered a lot of up and downs,” he said. “This store has been on the edge of death before and clawed its way back, so we’ll see.”