A customer shops for a book at the St. Mark's...

A customer shops for a book at the St. Mark's book shop in New York. (Oct. 21, 2011) Credit: Jin Lee

Trendy subjects and bestseller lists get short shrift at this bookstore, where the buyer's intellect is stimulated by such titles as "Illuminations," a book about a poet that was first published in 1886.

Welcome to St. Mark's Bookshop, an East Village staple that faces hard economic times and may have to shut down.

Bookstore owners Bob Contant, 68, and Teri McCoy, 67, say record low book sales have forced them to stop drawing salaries for themselves and cut back hours for their full-time staff.

An online petition with more than 44,000 signatures from neighborhood customers and out-of-town fans pleads with property owner Cooper Union college to reduce the independent bookstore's rent to $15,000 a month. The store has been paying $20,000 a month for the past three years.

But Contant said Cooper Union administrators rejected the bookstore's request last week. Instead, he said, the store was offered a month's rent deferment that would have to be paid back when the lease runs out.

College spokeswoman Jolene Travis refuted Contant's claim. She said no decision has been made on a rent reduction. She one would be made by Monday.

Contant said he met with college president Jamshed Bharucha. "He told us that the college is struggling, and that after our lease expires in seven years, we would not be able to afford to renew it. I'm sure they would like to be rid of us," Contant said.

Meanwhile, book lovers like Martin Pierre of Brooklyn have been showing their support for the store online:

"We have to save this bookstore," Pierre wrote on the petition. "I'm so tired of seeing nothing but drugstores, banks and Starbucks on every corner of NYC."

Contant said the support has prompted neighbors to buy books and "business has been good. We have the holidays coming up, but after that, I don't know."

Contant, who started his career as a librarian, said he opened St. Mark's Bookshop -- "the oldest independent bookstore in the city" -- in 1977, when the hippie era was ending and "before punk rock" made its debut in the East Village.

"It was pretty depressed back then," he said. "There was nothing here. The rent was $375." Then "artists started to move in and began to show their work in their apartments. There were galleries and it started to thrive."

Philip Glass, Patti Smith and the Talking Heads were regulars at the shop, known for its extensive contemporary poetry collection.

"They were part of the neighborhood," Contant said. "We had cornered the market on critical theory and post-structural philosophy that was taking over academia."

Joyce Ravitz, 68, of the Cooper Square Community Development and Businessmen's Association, said Wednesday the neighborhood group will fight to keep the store open.

"A neighborhood isn't just about apartments," Ravitz said. "It's about small businesses and saving them."

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