Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Mercer Street Books & Records

For 27 years, Wayne Conti has been running Mercer Street Books & Records, one of the last used bookstores in town. Recently, business has gotten rough. He's not vanishing yet, but he just signed a new lease, and it might be the last.

It came with a jump in rent, plus an escalation.

“My rent is far from the worst,” he says, “and my landlord’s not a bad guy, but I think he got pulled into the idea of the market. It’s not a partnership anymore, like it was in the past. It’s all market, market, market.”

Wayne points out the high-rent blight in the Village and Soho, storefronts kept empty by big landlords, sometimes for years at a time. He heard a theory about the practice. A high rent, even on an empty space, he explains, means high equity that building owners can turn into high loans from banks, that can then be used to buy more buildings. It’s some kind of a racket—and it’s helping to kill small businesses in the city.

“I think every small business person is unhappy in New York,” Wayne says. “Who in their right mind would go into business in Manhattan now?”

Across the street from the bookshop, NYU is undertaking a major construction project, and it’s cutting into Wayne’s business. “It’s not a very attractive street anymore,” he says. “People aren’t walking by.” The construction combined with the jump in rent is “the perfect storm to tip the equilibrium. And I find myself struggling.”

The Internet has taken a bite, too. People used to hunt for used books in the real world. Now, it can all be found online. “You’ve lost that feeling of ‘I’ll never see it again.’” But the Internet is “not the whole story by any means.”

Wayne says, “The rents are going faster than inflation.” And landlords are looking for major players to put up flagships, loss leaders that mostly serve as advertising for a national or global brand. “Many a landlord won’t even talk to you if you’re not a chain,” says Wayne. “The chains have the resources, so even if the store is not making money, they’ll keep paying the rent.”

He is not ready to close shop and retire. He’s 65 years old and he’d like to keep the bookstore going until he’s 70. “It’s going to be hard to find a job.”

photo of Wayne Conti by Franck Bohbot--see his project on New York Indie Bookshops

Wayne looks around at Manhattan and sees it becoming a mall – “and a mall is a very dull place. You see the same stores over and over. It cycles every 20 blocks. You’re losing the engine of innovation. You lose all the texture and quality of life.”

He doesn’t have much hope that City Hall will step in with solutions like the Small Business Jobs Survival Act or the revival of commercial rent control, enjoyed by New Yorkers for many years after World War II.

“Most politicians,” he says, “are unexceptional people. After they’re in office, they’re put on the boards of real estate companies. So they don’t want to upset their future bosses.”

“New Yorkers need to say let’s take a break here and take control of our destiny and elect people who aren’t greedy monsters. We need people who say 'I’m not so interested in money that I’m willing to destroy my community.' We need politicians with a sense of shame.”

But too many New Yorkers of today aren't making that happen.

“People started getting really snotty at the end of the 1990s and into the 2000s,” Wayne says. “After 9/11, people calmed down. They connected with each other. But it didn’t last. We need to wake people up. They need to know they’ve fallen asleep.”

“Bookstores help with that, because you really can get into someone else’s mind. When you’re reading, you get to be another person. That increases your knowledge and understanding. Art is about standing in someone else’s shoes. Or standing more securely in your own. Bookstores are centers for the exchange of ideas between people and books, and people and dead and living people. And it really enhances the quality of your life.”

“I really like this place,” he says of the shop. “I don’t want to see it die.”

Visit Mercer Street Books at 206 Mercer St, just north of Houston, and buy some stuff from Wayne. Many of us really like that place, too.

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