Local passport: East Village

WHEN I HEARD ABOUT the Bowery Poetry Club closing, I winced for a few reasons. First, I’m not really an “out with the old” kind of person. I dislike seeing any meritorious nugget of history or culture chipped at—especially when it’s unlikely the succeeding “thing” will ever be as distinctive as the original. The question, “Do we need another frozen yogurt chain or whatever trend du jour?” is too oft-asked these days.

But these losses brings up deeper place-memory questions. In 10 years when [fill in mega-brand name here] has over-expanded, worn out its welcome and moved on, will anyone recall a moment of true connection over that branded experience? [Disclaimer: I love Krispy Kreme glazed donuts, but give me Doughnut Plant any day. I still remember my first bite there, circa 2002; a huge peach doughy tire split over a cup of coffee with a handsome architect who wiped the crumbs off my chin. In Dunkin’, this would have been simply a soon-forgotten guilty sugar gulp, dandy companion notwithstanding.]

Second, as a writer and long-ago English major, any diminution of literature tugs a little at the heart. Though I don’t write poetry, I have friends who do, and hearing there’s one less place for that art—especially in New York’s spiritual home of poetry—is like the sickening thud of another independent bookstore closing its door for the last time.

And what a nice segue into the plight of St. Mark’s Bookshop. The store’s rent woes are well-publicized, as is the local community’s support of the store, an anchor not only on that rag-taggy little street, but of the whole neighborhood. What Coliseum Books and Gotham Book Mart were to their neighborhoods, St. Mark’s is to the East Village. I popped in last Saturday to check out the cash mob benefit organized by Jeremiah Moss, and one of the owners, Bob Contant, very kindly consented to an interview on the spot. Actually, he brought me to the basement, a warren fashioned from stacks of books, magazines, CDs, and in its way, much more fascinating than the public floor. A strange jazz-inflected Japanese music played softly somewhere, source unknown. On Bob’s desk sat a yellowed PC with its orange-lettered DOS interface. New technology upstairs, but down below, still the hands-on way of doing things. It wouldn’t have surprised me to see a tattered manual ledger somewhere.

Any number of on-the-ground reports will tell you that what’s happening to St. Mark’s Book Shop isn’t personal, and, these days, not uncommon [EVGrieve] [Vanishing New York]. Bob, too, was dispassionate about it, more of the “what are ya gonna do about it” shrug of someone who knows you can’t fight City Hall. Or Citibank, the kind of tenant that could afford that space.

Bob and his business partner are committed to staying in the neighborhood: They just can’t pay $23,000 a month in rent to do that. They’ll also have trouble coming up with the $23,000 needed to move the store to smaller quarters, assuming they find them. That’s a lot of books to sell. And that’s why some community residents have kicked in, and why crowdfunding platforms are becoming the way small businesses can continue doing business. It’s no small irony a place like St. Mark’s can’t turn to the hometown bank, say, a Chase or Citibank—likely those are the competitors for the prime real estate the bookstore occupies.

The news on the Bowery Poetry Club isn’t all bad. Owner Bob Holman, the “dean of the scene” in the East Village, hopes to reopen the club in partnership with a burlesque club. There will be fewer nights dedicated to readings, but the arrangement creates an opening to mix up poetry, food and cabaret, and attract new folks who come for the martini and stay for the slam. It’s fitting not only because of the Bowery’s vaudeville heritage, but because the village’s other legacy is the mother of [re]invention.

Happily, other places of poetry are thriving, even if the places in which they were historically produced are shutting down around them. While long-time literary haunts Holiday Cocktail Lounge and LIFE Café closed down, places such as Nuyorican Poets Café, the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s in the Bowery and KGB still uphold the spoken word.

I’ve given you a long trailer. But don’t let that stop you from “reading the movie,” so to speak. In WSJ on Wednesday and in PDF form here.


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