Wasting Time at the Old St. Mark’s Books
February 25, 2016
About once a week, someone wanders into Panya, a Japanese deli on East 9th Street at 3rd Avenue, and asks for the bookstore that used to be next door. The old St. Mark’s Bookshop acted as an ambassador to the East Village from 1977 to 2014, specializing in poetry, cultural theory, film studies, and neighborhood-related materials. “They must not know that they closed. I hope they reopen,” the student working behind the counter at Panya informs me. She’s only been there for two months, and, like the visitors who come into the deli in search of the old St. Mark’s—as if it were an old friend who didn’t leave a forwarding address—she hadn’t known that the bookstore had moved to 126 East 3rd Street more than a year ago. Or that this past week, it had announced plans to permanently close that location, too. “Oh, that’s so sad,” she says when I tell her the news. “I didn’t even know they reopened. Did they change the name when they moved?” No, I say. Same name, just a different location. “But if it wasn’t on St. Mark’s anymore, why would they keep the name?”
In 2012, when St. Mark’s announced that it couldn’t survive the raised rents at 3rd Avenue, it was hard to believe that it would really, actually be forced to move. How could an NYC institution be so vulnerable? And when an aggressive social media campaign, a fundraising drive and a 40,000-people-strong petition still couldn’t save it, it was hard to contemplate its new location as fact. Where was the new one again? A place is more than its name; its power comes from the meaning we make of our physical relationship to it over time.
When I think of the old St. Mark’s Bookshop on 3rd Avenue, I think of the many days and evenings I spent there killing time, trying to get rid of a loneliness that was so much a part of my early years in New York. I also can’t think of it without thinking of its neighbors; the places around it that I found myself in or near. There was a jewelry store called Unique Collection on St. Mark’s Place that I used to visit with my friend Clara, who liked surveying their assortment of crystals, rocks and geodes, narrating their attributes aloud as we walked around the store. Next door was Papaya King, a brightly colored hot-dog chain, the kind of place my English Dad with his love for all things Americana would have liked. There was Ray’s Pizza, which reliably radiated an orange, oily light and was always good for a late night run. The dingy McDonald’s up the block provided the only bathroom one could easily duck into without anyone noticing. That placed one right next to 31 3rd Avenue, home to the old St Mark’s Bookshop.
There was nothing spectacular about the building, a simple brick that looked like it belonged to a newer New York than other buildings in the neighborhood did. The front of the bookstore met at a diagonal with the building next to it, and the angled archway above it made the structure look like a doctor’s office. New books were arranged plainly in the display window, which neatly framed the cashier and floor-through view of all the beautiful art books, the store’s main event. The look of it reminded me of a bookstore I used to go to as a kid in Hollywood called Crown Books, where I would pick up the latest Baby-Sitters Club.
My initial recollections of the physical space combine into a gauzy collage of images, a sort-of macro memory that stands in for a series of indistinct minutes, hours, times, spent in the place. In no particular order: I remember it being one of those bookstores where a book would find me. I remember the location prompting me to buy books written by writers from the East Village. I remember hearing rumors about a diner with a big clock that used to be next door. I remember the most exciting shelf being the one to the left right when you entered, where all the new fiction could be found. The people I was with always tended towards the art books. I remember how lonely this made me feel as I re-committed myself to the fiction section. I remember the gay section. I remember going there to look at magazines alone. I remember making a beeline for that section to see my name in print for the first time. I remember flipping to the masthead. I remember the first time this happened, my name was misspelled. I remember sending a copy of it to my grandma.
I remember one cold rainy evening at St. Mark’s Bookshop, spending what felt like a very long time waiting for the girl I was seeing. She worked at a fancy restaurant in Midtown, and told me she would text me as soon as she was off work. It was late, my phone was dying, and I felt very sad and anxious. It wasn’t so much that I thought she would stand me up, it was the knowing feeling that it wasn’t going to work out between us, which I was having a hard time accepting.
As I sat in the fiction section, waiting for her text message, a rather unhelpful question began to gnaw at me: Why had I wasted so much time? Why hadn’t I written a book yet? Annoyed with this familiar line of questioning, my eyes searched the books in front of me, and fell on the spine of a book by a very old friend of mine from LA. I hadn’t spoken to him in years and had no idea he had published his book. Within a couple minutes, I saw a book by another friend who I had met in New York. And then another friend. My friends were all here, I thought. There was nothing to worry about. When the woman I was waiting for finally showed up, we had dinner at a Japanese restaurant up the street. I think I saw her one more time after that. But that was the last time I saw the inside of the old St. Mark’s Bookshop.
Back in the present day, at Panya, which has been open since 1993, the student behind the counter asks me what I’m reading. “The Mare by Mary Gaitskill,” I tell her. She tells me she is reading Kafka on the Shore. “I love how he describes things. I can’t describe it!” She laughs at herself. Before I leave, I order a chocolate mousse set in a heart-shape mold. “It’s a Valentine to myself,” I tell her. Her face lights up in solidarity: “That’s okay, I was alone on Valentine’s Day, too. I took myself out on a date.” She went to the museum, she says, and then she went to hear some Japanese drummers in the park. Then she got a Big Mac.
I make a note to myself: Go back to wasting time.