This is a lovely, pre-holiday tale that could have captured the imagination of Charles Dickens. It is the story of a little, independent, different kind of bookshop that has served an artist and working-class community for 34 years. A purveyor of unusual journals and books that are within reach of thousands of students attending Cooper Union and nearby New York University. The St. Marks Bookshop, a Lower East Side institution, had been slated for termination by its landlord, none other than Cooper Union itself, that 19th-century bastion of higher learning and one of the oldest educational institutions in the nation, producing great artists, architects and engineers since 1859.
Cooper Union is a tuition-free school that is privately funded, and among the luminaries that have trod its well-worn floors was a relatively unknown candidate for the United States Presidency, Abraham Lincoln, who spoke in its Great Hall on February 27,1860 to a crowd of 1,500. The audience had no idea what to expect of the awkward and very tall man, yet Lincoln delivered what came to be known as "his right makes might speech," and he mesmerized the packed room with his examination of the views of the 39 signers of the Constitution and the role of Congress to control slavery in the territories. At the end of the speech the audience erupted in yells and cheers. It is commonly believed that this speech gave Lincoln the win that sent him on to the White House as the president of our young nation.
Through the decades, the Great Hall has been a sounding board and place for political discourse, inviting Indian Chiefs and more recently Newt Gingrich, who took on former Governor of New York Mario Cuomo in a "mano y mano" debate a few years ago. It was an epic, if one-sided, battle, as the Newt didn't stand a chance against the silver-tongued eloquence of Mario.
Cooper Union, the landlord, was owed $7,500 in back rent from the St. Marks Bookshop and was ready to evict. The new rental price to remain on the premises was to rise to $20,000 per month. Coming to its rescue was the Cooper Square Committee, the watchdog of the community for 52 years that has been the guardian of affordable housing issues in this area of the East Village. The beloved neighborhood bookshop had to be saved, and so Joyce Ravitz, the Chairperson of the CSC, launched an online petition to press Cooper Union to relent and make a deal with the shop that would keep it anchored in the community. Across the nation, over 44,000 people responded and cared enough about this little shop to step forward and sign the petition. As a result of this national response, Cooper Union has given the St. Marks Bookshop a one-year extension at a rate of $17,500 per month, reducing the proposed $20,000. And Cooper Union dismissed the debt of $7,500. So this means that in that one year period the shop's expenses will be reduced $37,500. And the talks between the bookshop and Cooper Union will continue in hope of reaching some kind of compromise to keep the shop in its longtime home after this one-year reprieve.
We have seen in recent months how big state and federal issues have garnered loads of press -- such as the Occupy actions nationwide -- while stories like the plight of a little neighborhood store like the St. Marks Bookshop never seem to make national news. But this story has great relevance, for it affects our communities and their very vibrancy. Maybe that is why thousands responded online to help. This community, like so many others, didn't want to lose another independent small business, or see something that was once a neighborhood staple -- the bookstore -- go the way of the national chains, as yet another retail industry rapidly disappears, to be replaced with cold and impersonal "e-books" read on sterile tablets. And what do you suppose would have replaced this beloved bookstore? Another bank, I would bet.
But the larger story here is how the CSC has become such an important part of community life in fighting for affordable housing and taking on landlords and, according to their mission statement, " working to create environmentally healthy housing and community cultural spaces so that Cooper Square on the Lower East Side remains racially, economically and culturally diverse." One of their ongoing other projects is to work with Community Board 3, which overwhelmingly passed the CSC proposal to turn a city-owned vacant building over to them in partnership with the Ali Forney Center. Together, they will seek to rehabilitate the building and turn it into a home for 12-18 LGBT homeless youth. With Community Board approval, the City Housing Agency will be urged to grant site control so they can then apply for funds to begin renovating. There are 1,500 homeless LGBT youth in NYC, and certainly this is not an issue indigenous to just NY, so this action could help spark a national conversation and response. Indeed, all local issues are national, and the Cooper Square Committee is a template for what other communities can do to create change and solve local problems. Their success speaks volumes.
500 in this community supported the proposal of the Cooper Square Committee to build a home and safe haven for the group of homeless LGBT young people that was delivered to Community Board 3. Activism is flourishing on many levels. And the community will celebrate victory at the St. Marks Bookshop on Thursday, December 1st, between 5:30 and 7: 30pm at 31 Third Avenue (corner of 9th Street). Stop by and join in this early holiday celebration if you are in the 'hood.
-- with Jonathan Stone