Thursday, September 22, 2011

Columbia's Precedent

"There was a time when any university worth visiting seemed to have a great bookstore worth visiting too, an idiosyncratic sort of place with a complex intellectual and social role in the exotic ecology of academic life."

So wrote the Times in 1997 when Columbia University fostered the birth of the Labyrinth bookstore "in an elaborate process reminiscent of efforts to rescue the California condor from extinction and return it to the wild." Columbia's officials had spent years trying to cultivate a quality bookstore in its neighborhood. Jonathan R. Cole, the university's provost, put it this way: ''It becomes part of the general view of the university as a place where people interested in matters of the mind congregate. And that helps us attract scholars, attract students, retain scholars.''

Imagine: A university in New York City actually valued books and wanted them nearby. So do you know what they did? They made the rent abundantly affordable.

What has changed in this city since 1997 that Cooper Union could permit St. Mark's Bookshop to fail in hard times? What has changed that Cooper Union, where people who ostensibly value "matters of the mind," would not value its neighboring bookstore enough to keep it alive and thriving? What has changed that the East Village could become a university neighborhood (Cooper, NYU, SVA) without its own high-quality bookstore?

In 1997, Columbia's provost stated: "It is especially important, it seems to me, that universities offer some form of support to keep this kind of bookstore in existence."

So what has changed in this city between 1997 and today? (And it's not just about Apple and Amazon.)

Cooper Union's board meets tomorrow to decide the fate of St. Mark's Bookshop. Senator Daniel Squadron has written a letter urging the school to lower the rent. More than 35,000 people have signed a petition. And many of you have lifted the shop's revenue by buying books. Will Cooper Union's president, Jamshed Bharucha, follow Columbia's example and show the city that its institutions of higher learning still value books and "matters of the mind"? Or will he follow the new Bloomberg order and pay homage only to the bottom line?

Also read:
An Open Letter to Cooper Union
Buy A Book Weekend at St. Mark's
Xmas in September

And sign that petition--it's now at over 35,000 signatures.

Thanks to reader Robert for tipping me to this relationship between Columbia and Labyrinth Books, a bookshop now thriving as the recently expanded Book Culture--who says bookstores can't do well in Manhattan?


tim said...

I don't know, but it seems to me that there was a sea change in what an education is (and by extension, what was "needed" for an quality education) when emphasis was placed on test results rather than understanding and comprehending a concept in its place in the greater scheme of life. Naturally, an environment such as a bookstore, where emphasis is on the latter has become undervalued.
Control information and ...

JAZ said...

I have to admit - when I turn down a street and start to see those purple "NYU" banners draped all over the place, I get a bad feeling - at this point it feels like the flag of an invading army that isn't yet satisfied with their present spoils.

On a positive note, I picked up a few books at St. Marks Bookshop last night: a signed copy of Store Front - The Disappearing Face of New York, Just Kids by Patti Smith, and Live Nude Girls by Sheila McClear.

Store Front would make a great coffee table book for any New Yorker that still gives a shit about what made New York different from so many suburban mall towns.

I hope everybody does their part to keep St. Marks going. I can't wait to get through these books, and get over there to pick up a few more - that little 'island' right past the cashier always has such great finds.

Anonymous said...

Columbia is a terrible landlord and has destroyed an entire neighborhood north of its campus. I doubt they would lower the rent of a tenant today.

Anonymous said...

Look at those entitled pseudo artsy fartsy fools at Cooper Union- do they look like they read anything except comic books (graphic novels) or some trendy trash from the mcsweeney's folk?

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't expect much from someone named "Jamshed".

Anonymous said...

I'm hoping anon 8:16 pm can elaborate on what's wrong with the name Jamshed. I can only hope the issue is something childish and not something more sinister.

Anonymous said...

Well for one, it sounds "foreign," shouldn't that be enough?

Anonymous said...

Labyrinth serves as one of the main text book store for Columbia. It falls somewhere between small independent store and arm of the University. Morningside Heights, much like Bergen street in Brooklyn, is a curated neighborhood designed by one of the wealthiest institutions in the City for it's members. I know that St. Marks is an institution, and I buy at least a dozen books there every year, but I have to admit that I buy more at Mast these days because they have a better selection (for what I'm interested in) and better prices.

If Cooper Union did lower rent, because it thought that St Marks fit in to the university feel of the neighborhood, would you criticize them as you have the design of Bergen street?

Jeremiah Moss said...

Anon, i don't think we're going to have a curated neighborhood like Bergen, which could be deliberately constructed because it was all owned by the Pintchiks and they chose every business that went in there. so it's far from the same thing.

but what if St. Mark's became an "arm" of Cooper, a partner of some kind, supplying textbooks? maybe that's necessary for its survival. i think i can live with that. if Cooper bought them out and it became the Cooper Union Student Bookshop with Cooper tote bags and coffee mugs, and all that junk, no thanks.

and i also like Mast but i haven't been too excited by their selection. i walk into SMB and always see brand-new titles i didn't know were published and that excite me.

Jeremiah Moss said...

also, for the record, i am by no means saying Columbia is an angel when it comes to the neighborhood. look what they're doing to Manhattanville--total land grab. but in this case (pre-Bloomberg era, too), they did right, and it provides a rational model for what could be done with SMB. that's the point of this post.