Amy Haben interviews one of the Founders of St. Mark’s Books shortly before their 2016 closing.
AMY: Can you give me some backstory?
TERRY: I was one of the founders… so I’ve worked here since 1977. I owned it until about a year ago. I sold my shares to my partner at that point. So as of right now, I’m actually neither an owner or an officer. I’m just coming in to keep the operation going.
AMY: What inspired you to start St. Mark’s books?
TERRY: It was a long time ago. We all knew each other from working at another bookstore on St. Mark’s Place called East Side Books. It was the 60’s counter-culture bookstore of that era. It was not doing well and we felt like we could do a book store on our own. There were 5 of us, so we each chipped in a little money and we worked sweat equity. We each had other jobs. We built it ourselves. Our goal was to keep the store stocked with well chosen books.
AMY: More subversive books?
TERRY: Yeah, we knew the neighborhood and we knew what the people in the East Village read. It just so happened at that time that there was a wave of the French post structuralist philosophy was becoming very much in vogue. So we hit that wave. The East Village itself was very in vogue at that moment. There was an art scene that started down here at that time. There was a music scene, CBGB’s, and all that stuff converged. We just happened to be THE bookstore that was headquarters for it all.
AMY: Did you have any interesting customers back then?
TERRY: Well in ’68 Ed Sanders of The Fugs would come in a lot. He used to have a little bookstore on Avenue A called Peace Eye. His bandmate Tuli Kupferberg came around for years. East Side Books was busted for selling Zap comics and Robert Crumb comics. Allen Ginsberg was a regular at both East Side and St. Marks bookstores. The New York Dolls would come around regularly to East Side Books. Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell, in those days they hung out a lot, they would come in together. Richard Hell sold poetry books on a consignment basis. I would see them on the street and we would chat.
Vintage poster for The Fugs.
AMY: Was there anyone that you watched come up as a novelist?
TERRY: Kathy Acker. I saw her when she started out before her books came out. You know she was just this young woman. Then she became an icon. That was when I went from being an employee of East Side Books to one of the founder/owners of St. Mark’s Books. Kathy was always a friend of the store. The CBGB’s people… David Byrne used to come in. Jim Marshall…
The beautiful young punk novelist Kathy Acker.
AMY: Bookstores and record stores for me are too tempting. I have to just walk by most of the time. If i go in I’ll buy everything.
TERRY: Me, too. Although there is this funny thing that happens where you handle the books, you unpack them, you shelve them, you arrange them… You think that you’ve read them. You even have an opinion of them. So it’s overly familiar to you, so it works against you and you don’t feel like taking it home and reading it.
AMY: Where was the original location?
TERRY: Our very first location was on St. Mark’s between 3rd and 2nd avenues in ’77. Our second location was also on that block. We were too successful and the store was so busy that people wouldn’t come in, the store was too packed. So we moved into a much bigger store. There was a problem we ran into. During that era, tables would line St. Mark’s place with books for sale. The people selling these books would buy books from thieves that had just been stolen from us. It was a very frustrating time for us and one reason we wanted to move off of St. Mark’s. So we moved into this new building that Cooper Union just bought and we were there for twenty-one years.
Photo of St. Mark’s Books on St. Mark’s Place between Second & Third in 1983.
AMY: That location was on 3rd Avenue between 9th street and St. Mark’s Place, which you just moved out of 13 months ago.
Outside of St. Mark’s Books 4th and newest location. – 136 E. 3rd Street between 1st and Avenue A.
AMY: Is this new location (136 E. 3rd Street between 1st Avenue and Avenue A) working for you guys?
TERRY: I like where we are but we need more foot traffic. I think people would come here if the store was stocked better, but we need the cash flow to do that.
Shelf of current location of St. Mark’s books at 136 E. 3rd Street, NY, NY. Photo: Suzanne Coley
AMY: Are you thinking about completely closing St. Mark’s Books for good?
TERRY: We are always worried about that but we are planning to keep going. We are looking to raise money though investors. We are working on structuring that right now. I do think that people will go out of their way to come here and this area has its own thriving neighborhood.
AMY: I moved to Williamsburg 12 years ago and it was toted as “the new East Village.” It’s not as cool anymore because wealthy families moved in and the rents raised pushing the galleries and vintage stores and many artists out. But I do think Avenue A and B from 14th down to 1st is the new hip area. So i do think this store will thrive.
TERRY: Avenue A does remind me of 2nd Avenue back in the day, when East Side Books and St. Mark’s were thriving (late 70’s). So I do think you are right about that. This is a cool place to be and I’m very happy to be here.
AMY: Have you ever had anyone rent out the store to shoot a film?
TERRY: We did it once, in our second location. It was a TV movie about Abbie Hoffman. I didn’t really like the experience because they just take over. Extras hanging out doing nothing and a big mess everywhere. We ok’d to let a film have this space for a Julianne Moore movie, but she got another job that she couldn’t turn down right before they started shooting. This was two weeks ago. We had said yes.
AMY: Did you at least get some money?
TERRY: No. They had cancelled in time. Sex and the City wanted to do an episode here.
AMY: Did you go to CBGB?
TERRY: Yeah, I lived on the next block. When I started going they had checkered table clothes and candles on the table, ha ha ha!
I saw The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, Television…. As the scene went on, the English style started affecting the American style and CBGB actually looked different. I remember going there in ’77, which was two years after I started going there. It looked a lot different inside by that time.
I have a theory that everyone’s basis is what they were originally turned on to at 12, 13, 14. Whatever music that they really loved then is the basis for what they listen to for the rest of their lives.
AMY: True. The first time you read a book with a cuss word in it and you listen to music that excites you, it represents freedom and you hold on to that feeling.
SUPPORT ST. MARK’S BOOKS! GO THERE AND BUY BOOKS! BROWSE! DON’T BE LAZY! TAKE A WALK! IF YOU BUY ALL OF YOUR BOOKS ONLINE WE WILL LOSE ALL OF OUR BOOKSTORES! KEEP THE MONEY IN THE COMMUNITY!
NOTE: St. Mark’s Books closed in February 2016. Wiki here