4:21 pm Jul. 18, 2012
Once again, the St. Mark's Book Shop at East 9th Street and Third Avenue appears to be in trouble.
It occupies prime retail space owned by Cooper Union, not some distant slumlord. Rallies in the fall (starring Michael Moore, among many others) actually helped to persuade the school to lower the store's rent from $20,000 to $15,000 a month, but slow sales mean even that is a stretch for them. Now, they're looking for a smaller, more affordable space (like the one they used to occupy on St. Mark's Place, perhaps).
In the meantime, a mission to shore up the store's lagging summer register receipts is being led by Jeremiah Moss, proprietor of the blog Vanishing New York, an encyclopedic daily accounting of beloved longstanding New York institutions facing the ax as gentrification, chain stores, and the death of so many old brick-and-mortar business models threatens to homogenize Manhattan. Moss has organized a "cash mob," in which people who come and spend $10 in the store now get $5 in store credit on a gift card. And then they'll go out for drinks afterward.
Life isn't much better over on East 3rd Street, where Bleecker Bob's, the record store started in 1967 by Bob Plotnik, is falling victim to a combination of rising rents, a diminished interest in record-shopping (especially for vintage vinyl, the store's specialty) and an aneurysm that for the last ten years has kept Plotnik far from the store, at a nursing home on the Upper West Side.
In a 32-minute documentary published on Capital today, Hazel Sheffield and Emily Judem interview the staff, old business partners, and friends of the store, and visit Plotnik. They talk extensively about the challenges of continuing to run the store, and also confront personal questions: Is the passion for the music still there as it was in the old days, enough to power a major reinvestment in the store's strategy? Some of the employees have worked there for decades (enduring some of Plotnik's eccentricities in the process). The end of the line for Bleecker Bob's is very sad, but it's clearly not all about rent.
One wonders how much of this "vanishing New York" is dying of natural causes. The Bleecker Bob's story, for example, is a complex one: Bob's girlfriend asks him how they can keep the store when people aren't buying records like they used to.
"They'll buy them if I tell them to buy them," Bob says. But nobody seems completely convinced.
Change is a part of the nature of the city. But maybe what we're really experiencing is a kind of entropy, as individual talent and entrepreneurship and style, and local ideas and preferences and customs, are slowly being eroded and replaced with corporate monoculture.
The issue in New York isn't about German bakeries being replaced by Dominican bakeries, nowadays; it's about Dominican bakeries being replaced by Dunkin' Donuts.
It'll be a while before the Village looks like that (unlike the vast stretches of Queens that are already a strange sort of no-place). And it just is not practical to suggest that a record format nobody wants (or a publishing format nobody wants, for that matter) ought to be sustained by some extra-market force.
On an up note: All signs are that the Strand Bookstore continues to do a brisk business, as does McNally Jackson. And new record stores continue to pop up in Brooklyn. In fact the small-business movement in Brooklyn is so prominent that it's suffering its own sort of backlash in fashionable New York, interspersed among the laments for the passing on of old, carefully and idiosyncratically curated storefronts.
As the city soldiers its way through yet another heatwave and dark, heavy clouds approach Manhattan from across the Hudson, it's worth taking a moment to mourn the fact, as one of the Bleecker Bob's record-slingers tells Hazel and Emily, "This ain't Bob Dylan's New York."
Because every age needs its own champions, right?