"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?
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?