Friday, May 25, 2007
May 28, 2007
In 1921, two years after the First World War, British writers (C. A. Dawson Scott and John Galsworthy) founded the first PEN (poets, playwrights, essayists, editors, and novelists) center (then called “The P.E.N. Club”) in London. Scott believed that an international consortium of writers could eventually heal the enmity between nations around the world. The next year PEN opened an American Center in New York.
Today there are 144 PEN Centers in 101 countries, and PEN is an influential force in bringing writers together, defending them from censorship and protecting their basic human rights.
From the PEN American Center’s Soho office, Larry Siems, 47, directs the Freedom to Write program, which is PEN’s human rights arm, and its International Programs division, which connects New York to the other PEN centers around the world. (There is also a Los Angeles location.)
What are some of the biggest threats to freedom of expression in general and press freedoms for writers right now?
Let’s start on the international front. I’ll just give you two examples. One, the landscape has really shifted in the last 20, 30 years since say the collapse of the Soviet Union. The kind of old model of, even of PEN’s work, involved PEN’s advocacy of a writer in a Soviet country. And they were usually a poet or a fiction writer who was in jail because of ideological crimes that sort of went against the general vision of history or political realities that the government was trying to project. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, really, the battleground has been not ideology, but information. So the person in jail is much more likely to be a journalist than a poet. And a lot of that is struggle over information about corruption, about institutions of power that aren’t necessarily official state institutions. We look at countries like Mexico, like Russia and Philippines, where journalists are getting murdered at quite alarming rates. And often it’s for reporting on organized crime, relationships between organized crime and the state, or independent organized crime – narco-trafficking, things like that. And that’s a big challenge, because in the old days you knew exactly who to address your complaints to. They were states, they were held accountable to international treaties, to some extent. And now, the sort of matrix of oppression has become much larger and much more complicated.
At the same time, there is a kind of a new rise of, kind of ideological cases. Writers are now getting in trouble for – I mean a real battleground, sort of intellectually, is around the area of religious defamation. There are a couple of resolutions that have been passed in the United Nations in the last couple years that we’re looking at with some concern, that would urge states to make it a crime for people to insult people’s religious beliefs, sort of in response to, you can think of the Danish cartoon, and this controversy is the leading example of this. It’s being driven within the international community by a sense of, there is this kind of alarming rise in Islamophobia, in particular, that there’s targeting of or misrepresentation, mischaracterization of Islam, and the nature of Islam, and it’s sort of fomenting a kind of prejudice and hatred in the world. And certainly PEN, which is an organization which, along with human rights, it’s other principle focus is on promoting international dialogue and understanding, takes that very seriously, and we certainly see an issue there. But we do see very, very serious problems with trying to legislate protections for religions, which we believe are systems of thought and belief that should be subject to criticism, investigation. Traditionally, rights inhere in individuals, they don’t inhere in groups. As an individual you are entitled to be free from discrimination based on your religious beliefs, but to move to laws that protect what you believe, the system of your beliefs, that’s moving into areas that I think is really threatening to freedom of expression. And you’re likely to find writers who are getting in trouble for it. Under these laws, something like the “Satanic Verses,” controversy for example, would be multiplying around the world, and there would presumably be writers imprisoned for writing books that satirize religions or challenge religious orthodoxies.
Does PEN advocate for documentary producers or broadcast journalists?
We debate these questions a lot. Well, Theo Van Gogh is a case where, we were involved in it to the extent, there was a script for the movie that he shot, which was by Ayaan Hirsi Ali who wrote the script of the movie. And so in that case, we think of documentary, for example, or film in general, as a written art…We tend to, just because of limited resources, focus on print rather than on broadcast media. But we also understand that in many countries, broadcast media are the main means of disseminating information, so we might not be advocating on behalf of specific media personnel, but we would be challenging media laws that would restrict broadcasters, for example.
And not to say, you were talking about issues, talk about issues in the United States, challenges to journalists and free expression in the United States, certainly as far as what journalists are facing, they’re facing a much more difficult climate since 9/11. And at PEN we sort of identify three main areas of threat to freedom of expression since 9/11, three kind of trends that are threatening free expression here in the United States and around the world. The first is, sort of an increase in big government surveillance, penetration into people’s private lives. So, the example on which we’ve done a lot of advocacy along with booksellers and librarians, is the provisions of the Patriot Act that allow the FBI to get your bookstore and library records, for example. The idea here is, and the Supreme Court has recognized, that the First Amendment protects not only your right to speak, but your right to get information. And to get information privately, this is how free minds are allowed to explore and test ideas. So we’ve been working with the booksellers and librarians with this campaign for reader privacy, to challenge these Patriot Act provisions.
So, you have increasing surveillance of people’s personal space. At the same time, the people have decreasing access to information. The government is much more secretive than it has been. And here’s where journalists are getting into trouble in the United States. They’re subpoenaing journalists to reveal confidential sources, while the more secretive government is, the more the press has to rely on confidential sources or privileged sources, to get information that ought, perhaps, to be publicly available. And now they’re vulnerable for it. So within the last couple of years, you think of the major stories that The New York Times, and The Washington Post has broken about CIA secret prisons, and about the NSA surveillance program, about the monitoring [of] financial transactions. And every time those stories broke, there were public calls by some political people to prosecute those reporters under the Espionage Act, for example. So that’s a real threat in the United States.
At the same time access to information, the government is even making it more difficult for the U.S. to hear a wider range of voices. So they’ve blocked, for example, international scholars from coming to the United States. They’re afraid of what they’ll say. So, the resurgence of what we call ideological exclusion. So, for example, the Muslim scholar, Tariq Ramadan, who was offered a post at University of Notre Dame, had his visa cancelled, and has yet to be able to come to the United States. PEN has filed a lawsuit along with the ACLU and some other academic organizations, to challenge this practice of – I think it’s really of trying to deprive the United States citizens of their First Amendment right to interact with people from around the world.
So, increased surveillance, decreased access to information, and then the last area is just that the U.S. is abandoning its commitment to basic human rights protections, that it’s long promoted around the world. So if you think about due process protections that require fair and speedy and open trials, versus arbitrary detention like Guantanamo and secret prisons,where you get tortured. These are things that routinely, writers around the world are prosecuted and jailed, arbitrarily detained or tortured into confessing for crimes, and are locked away after faulty legal processes. And for years, PEN has been, we protest from the United States. And also, the United States government has been an ally with us in those cases, saying you know, ‘these are abuses.’ Well now our government is committing those same abuses. And so, the failure of the United States to protect these basic standards in the United States is endangering not only people in the United States, but writers around the world.
Our position is that the failure to abide by prescribed standards here, threatens the due process around the world, and writers are bound to fall afoul of that, because we have long been able to argue effectively internationally against these kinds of abuses, partly because we have the strong support of, or, an ally, in the United States government.
And so, if you look at, for example, Uzbekistan, a case where writers are routinely tortured, hideously tortured, into confessing to crimes – and Uzbekistan, which has gone through sort of a parabola of friendship with the United States, where shortly after 9/11 it was one of our major allies in the War On Terror. And during that period, when it became very difficult, the U.S. was making clear compromises with the government of Uzbekistan. I think they were even rendering terrorist suspects to Uzbekistan, for example. And so, there was a corresponding spike in just, domestic abuses in Uzbekistan. And they just sort of lost that check. Now, maybe because of the massacre in Uzbekistan, about a year ago, the relations have become somewhat chillier. But it’s that kind of relationship that’s dangerous.
You mentioned The New York Times controversies. What do you say to someone who argues that national security trumps a good story?
PEN supports a federal shield law, federal shield protections for journalists. And there’s a bill now in the House and the Senate. And that bill, has, an exception for national security. It’s not a blanket privilege. It does say that journalists can be compelled to reveal confidential source material when there’s a national security issue. So, there are, I suppose, a limited number of cases where there will be national security issues and information. But the press is remarkably effectively self-policing on these things. You could look at the fact that The New York Times, for example, held information for over a year on [the] surveillance program before it published the information, and was in constant conversation with the government during that time, about whether or not it should publish that information. Many people in the public as a whole think that The New York Times withheld the information for far too long. I mean, the press is cognizant of national security issues, but the decisions rightly belong in the hands of editors, not in the government. Governments, historically and universally, misuse the notion of national security to guard secrets, to guard information that bears most often, on just government failings, the kind of things that ought to be open to public scrutiny.
There are probably a lot of people who feel they have the right to know if the government is listening to their phone calls and reading their e-mail. But what about the SWIFT banking consortium? Do we have the right or the need to know that the government is trying to monitor terrorists’ finances, in Belgium?
It’s an interesting case, and I don’t know enough about the technical details of money transactions, to know of what level the technical information was revealed by those reports. But I will say, in the general consensus that I’ve read, and in the community as a whole, is that, those who were transferring money for terrorist support, were long cognizant of the fact that their international financial transactions were being monitored. It was well-publicized -- all the legislation, the Patriot Act and all these things. The fact that people were being prosecuted in the United States for material support for terrorism based on financial transactions – I mean, I don’t think it was a secret that the U.S. was at some, whatever level available, surveilling international financial transactions, and have been for drug trafficking and money laundering for a long time. So, the real question, I suppose, is always, the only question is, in a case like this, has the divulging of this information compromised the ability to accomplish whatever the law enforcement goal is. Personally, I find it hard to believe that the law enforcement is compromised, because I believe that people who were dealing with here, had long since made alternative arrangements for transferring their money. That would be my guess.
If I’m an imprisoned reporter in some less-than-democratic nation, how does my case get from my cell into your hands? And what kinds of things can you do to improve my situation?
We hear about you through any number of methods. It could be we know you already. Many of the people we deal with in countries are people who have long been working with independent newspapers that have been in constant battles with the government. So we will know you or your colleagues, or your family, so somebody will get in touch with PEN. If not, it’ll be organizations in those countries, with whom PEN is contact, or human rights organizations in our countries, in England, where our main research office is based, or here in the United States, will contact us. And we get information and we immediately start investigating what’s happening to you. And we have a primary response system, which is called Rapid Action Network. So when we learn of your arrest, a bulletin will go around to 70 PEN centers around the world who are part of this network. And we’ll all immediately write letters to your government expressing concern about your arrest, letting the government that we know you’re detained. And that very often, immediately, will lessen the risk that you would be tortured, lessen the risk that you would be killed, in early days of detention, that they would just sort of disappear you, because the government’s aware that we know that they have you.
Because they’re afraid of things like sanctions?
Governments hate to be publicly exposed as human rights abusers. That’s the bottom line. And the longer that you’re imprisoned, the more we try to make our contact, not only with the government – we’ll send letters directly to the prison. And prison officials who know that they have somebody in their prison who somebody knows about in New York and in Berlin, and Buenos Aires, or wherever the PEN centers are writing from, they’re bureaucrats, they don’t like trouble for themselves, so they don’t want you to die because people are going to ask, them, questions. So, you try to keep a steady attention, letting people know that we’ve got you, and then we start looking at sort of what the international mechanisms are for advocacy. So if you’re detained without charge or trial, PEN has affiliation of the United Nations, we’re a UNESCO umbrella organization, we have U.N. member status. And we will take your case, for example, to the U.N. Working Group On Arbitrary Detention, and get the U.N. to review it, and declare that you’re arbitrarily detained, so you get international documentation of your case.
Here at PEN American Center, we give an annual Freedom to Write Award that draws international attention to a particular case. And it’s just a sort of constant stream of attention. One thing PEN does that I think is pretty unique among organizations is that we do, in addition to issue-based work, we do individual, long-term casework. So, your name gets on our case list, and we’re going to be working on your case until you’re out. We have a group of volunteers at PEN, one of whom will take up your case, correspond with your family, be in touch with you, find out if you need anything, your family needs anything. And we’ll work it and work it and work it until you’re out.
Do you ever pay for legal representation?
Yes, we do. We have an emergency fund. So if somebody, the honorary members, we call them the cases that we’re really focusing on, which at any one time is around 20 or 25, if any of them need financial resources for legal help, or just for sustenance, we are able to provide that.
Do you get involved with disappearances, too?
Sure. And you send letters, and you send protests, and you hold the government accountable for -- any government is responsible for the safety of its citizens. So, often times, you’ll get a situation, if you look at, maybe not a disappearance, but a murder. A journalist is murdered in Mexico, probably by a drug cartel. And the government, on the one hand, sort of says, ‘wasn’t us.’ But, on the other hand, what is the government responsible for? Well, the responsibility of the government in that case is to investigate the crime, and to prosecute and punish the people who are guilty. So, one of the leading issues PEN faces is the issue of impunity, internationally. Countries where those who abuse writers, kill journalists, suppress freedom of information, freedom of the press, are not punished for it. And so it’s sort of an open season. And so the governments are responsible for investigating and prosecuting crimes. You disappear, and your government is responsible for investigating your disappearance, and solving your disappearance, prosecuting somebody for it. So the advocacy is directed at that level.
Was there ever a case you felt particularly attached to? How did it pan out?
The one that made sort of the biggest mark on me emotionally, happened not long after I started working at PEN, which was the case of Ken Saro-Wiwa, in Nigeria. Ken Saro-Wiwa was a very, very well known Nigerian writer, quite successful. He was a novelist and a playwright, and then he went on to write, it was [an] incredibly popular, satirical TV series that was the most popular television show in Nigeria at the time. And he, I guess, probably in his late fifties he must’ve been, sort of left his writing to take up causes, social activism on behalf of his indigenous group, called the Ogoni people and they live in the Niger River Delta, which is an oil exploration area. And he was protesting the impact of oil exploration on his community, which had not enjoyed any of the benefits of the enormous wealth that was generated on their land. And he was a leader of a protest movement, and he was targeted by the government, he was arrested several times, and ultimately, he was arrested on trumped up charges of murder and sentenced to death. And, the incredible thing was that he was somebody with whom PEN had had a fairly long relationship. He had come into the PEN office in London some years before to say, ‘I’m being followed. You should know.’ And so we followed his case, he corresponded regularly, I had an intern in my office who wrote him a letter in prison, and he wrote a letter back. And it was just a beautiful letter about sort of the responsibilities of a writer in Africa versus a writer in the United States, saying that in the United States, you have the luxury of just, you can just write. But here, you have to be in the streets, you have to be part of this social justice movement. And we were part of an enormous international campaign on his behalf. And that ended, unfortunately, with his execution. The world was shocked when the government went ahead and hanged him, in a kind of hideous and botched hanging. But, the interesting thing was that the PEN in Los Angeles, where I was working, sort of refused to let that lie, and conducted a long investigation of the involvement of international oil companies, in suppressing free expression in the oil producing regions in Nigeria, and had considerable discussions with Shell, which was the company that was directly implicated in that particular area, and fought on and I think, were successful in getting some of the international oil companies to recognize that international corporations have human rights responsibilities. And so, it was both extremely discouraging because we lost somebody who we thought we were having a conversation with, and was well-known enough that we thought was probably immune from execution. So it was a lesson that this is a serious, serious business, and governments will do whatever it takes sometimes to protect their interests. But at the same time, during that time, I met many Nigerian writers and journalists who were fighting the good fight against a very repressive military dictatorship. And three years later, the dictatorship ended, and democracy, a democratic government, came to Nigeria. And I was invited to Nigeria to celebrate with Nigerian writers and journalists. So there was despair, but there was also, you saw the incredible courage and perseverance of the people who were working in these conditions, and the fact that it really does make a difference in the long run.
Has the explosion of the Internet changed PEN’s job at all, or presented new issues?
Yeah. It’s sort of the classic mixed blessing in a way, that the Internet has brought an incredible amount of information around the world, including information about basic human rights and how to advocate for basic human rights. So it’s been a really, really valuable tool for the human rights community. And it’s just speeded up the exchange of information. So if you get arrested in some small town in some remote country, we’ll still find out about it, very quickly. At the same time, because the struggle is for control of information, now the control of the Internet is posing problems for [writers] as well. So Bloggers and Internet writers are among the most endangered, in several countries around the world. In China, there are many, many journalists who really have been working exclusively on the Internet who are in jail. Vietnam. Tunisia is a country that’s been particularly hard on the Internet. So, countries where the government is trying to control ISP’s, monitoring Internet cafes, for example, and trying to control the political discourse that happens on the Internet. And the whole technology that’s sort of developed around that, for filtering the [text] included, raised questions, I think, for U.S. Internet service providers and software manufacturers about, again, what corporate responsibilities are when dealing with these kind of governments. One of our most vexing cases right now is the case of the Chinese journalist Shi Tao, who’s been jailed for, he leaked information about, basically government orders on how to control the media during the anniversary of the Tieneman Square massacre. And he was prosecuted, partly because the government got information from Yahoo!, personal information that was used to convict him. And so, one of the things that we’re supporting is legislation that’s been introduced in Congress that would bar U.S. Internet service providers from developing the kind of software, participating in the kinds of censorship regimes, that can be used to jail Internet journalists and writers around the world.
And what’s your most pressing, your top priority right now?
Actually, today, one of the most pressing, top priorities is that we’re working on, extremely urgently on behalf of a group of Iraqi writers and journalists who are, whose lives are in constant and imminent danger. And we are working very hard to get people resettled, finally, outside of Iraq. I mean, it’s depressing to say so, because you’re talking about sort of the backbone of civil society, the kinds of writers — they range from poets and literary critics and university professors, to journalists, to people who are specializing in just translation – people who, when you thought of – dreamed of a democratic Iraq, you would imagine that they would be central characters in the building of that kind of society. And unfortunately, most of them have been targeted for death and are now living so perilously that it’s impossible for them to live inside of Iraq. So there’s a group of them who are now living in Syria. And PEN has resettled seven Iraqi writers and translators in Europe, so far, and mostly in Norway, and also, I think, in Germany. And now, perhaps, one is going to Italy. But we’re working very hard to get the United States government to resettle Iraqi writers and translators in the United States, because we consider it a basic, moral imperative for the United States to resettle some of those who have been just dislocated by the violence that the war has engendered.
Iraq could be an anomaly right now, but how protected are Americans working as foreign correspondents?
Well I mean in Russia, you know Paul Klebnikov, who was an American, who moved to Russia and was [editing] the Russian edition of Forbes magazine, was murdered. You know, you’re not exempt. I mean – Daniel [Pearl], but it could be because that’s sort of within the conflict zone of the Middle East. And I know it from speaking with American correspondents in China, you are constantly reminded of what your limits are, but you would be threatened with expulsion, would be the consequence in China, and in several other countries too. But, I mean, generally, I think, my own experience, and you know, the experience of all Americans who travel a fair amount abroad, probably holds for journalists too, which is that there are some built-in protections to being an American. I mean there are, basically. Everybody understands that particular difficulties will come, and also because everybody understands the power of the American media. So, in countries where people are struggling for a voice, struggling to have their story heard, there’s nothing more valuable to them than having their stories covered in the American media, or the Western media in general. European media counts as well. So there’s a kind of a privilege that comes both from governments recognizing that you have a powerful institution behind you, and from people understanding the power of the voice that you represent. So, I think the bigger issue is simply access to countries. There are places that [are] very difficult for American journalists to cover, cover well. And, so that’s the way control, I think, is really mostly exerted. I mean, can an American journalist get into the country? And then, how fearful are the people there about talking to you. And that’s the other thing, is that you may not be personally in danger, but everybody you talk to may be in danger because they’re speaking to you – you walk with a very large footprint, a very dangerous footprint in different countries. And so, that works too, as a real measure of control as well.
-- Matt Elzweig
Monday, May 21, 2007
May 21, 2007
It’s the last week of classes at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), which is within walking distance, and the crowd sitting under the awning of Morgan’s Market looks to be composed entirely of students. At about 11 a.m., they’re either having a late breakfast or an early lunch, and they don’t seem to have any pressing business to attend to.
Next door, in front of DEKK Restaurant, an Asian couple around the same age is on a bench, feeding each other, and kissing under the kind of leafy green foliage that’s scattered along the block.
The insistent, unsentimental sound of power tools issues from the higher floors of two buildings across from one another, one on Reade, and one on Chambers. And on Greenwich, and especially the Hudson intersection, there’s constant traffic and street noise, threatening to interrupt the relative calm.
But it’s a near perfect day, there’s a gentle breeze, the skies are clear, the nannies are out, and it’s warm enough for a short sleeve shirt and jeans. And this block, which leads up to Washington Market Park, feels a world, or at least a time zone away.
What Happened Here
Greg Bonsignore is Managing Director of Hudson Development, which sold 144 Reade, a townhouse, in 2000. In a telephone interview, he says that the buildings on this block were originally warehouses that stored hot dog carts and housed rental car facilities, and that the block has undergone a “really beautiful metamorphosis,” over the past 10-15 years. He quotes Mike Hickey, a bartender at Reade Street Pub and Grill who called this block “the Madison Avenue of Tribeca,” because larger, nicer buildings have replaced the smaller structures.
Tribeca’ s Community Historian, Oliver E. Allen, finds this block particularly interesting because, since 1991, when the landmarks commission drew up the Tribeca West Historic District, it’s been both inside and outside the protected area. The district runs from Hubert Street down to Reade, and is bordered by Greenwich to the West. But only the north corners of this section of Reade are protected because the district’s southern border juts up and in towards Duane, leaving out most of the buildings on the block.
Number 156 was designed and inhabited by the late architect John Petrarca, and his family. The six-story townhouse, which served as his office as well as his home, is most notable for its green construction.
As Alanna Stang and Christopher Hawthorne note in their 2005 book, “The Green House: new directions in sustainable architecture,” Petrarca’s construction protocol for the townhouse was inspired by his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer after college. It was during this time that he developed an interest “in finding creative solutions to local problems,” they write.
Among other innovations Petrarca devised for the house is a geothermal pump 1,100 feet underground that “uses up to 75 percent less energy than conventional heating systems.”
According to Allen, Petrarca designed four other buildings on the block.
He died of lung cancer in 2003, at 51.
121 Reade Street, a.k.a. Tribeca Abbey, is owned by Abington Properties. The four one-bedrooms listed on their Web site (representatives were not available for comment over the phone), are available from $2,395 to $3,350. A studio, which will be available in June, is listed for $2,295.
Hudson Development sold the townhouse at 144 Reade Street in late 2005 for $8 million.
Andrew Melnick, an Associate Broker at Tabak Real Estate (located right on this block), says there are currently no sale properties, in a telephone interview. 138 Reade is a new condo building with commercial space on the ground floor, and Melnick says the average price per square foot would have to be “at least $1,300.”
A good old-fashioned “BAR” sign denotes the Reade Street Pub & Kitchen below (135), and of course there’s Morgan’s (13 Hudson). For the health conscious, there’s Kiva Café (139 Reade) and a New York Sports Club (151) on the corner of Reade and Greenwich. DEKK (134) is a Mediterranean restaurant that features live jazz. There is also a handful of women’s boutiques and the Lotus Salon (141).
And in addition to BMCC, some of the best New York City public schools, P.S. 234, P.S. 150 and Stuyvesant high, are in the neighborhood, which probably explains, in part, why so many strollers are on the sidewalks here.
-- Matt Elzweig
Monday, May 14, 2007
New in paperback ($13.95)
May 14, 2007
Can you compare it to San Francisco in terms of music?
What types of DJ music are popular here, right now?
How do select the type of music and the chef for a Chowdown?
Monday, May 07, 2007
May 7, 2007
In the matter of Barnes & Noble, Astor Place, it would be all too easy to conjure up yet another hackneyed David and Goliath image: Corporate behemoth opens bookstore down tree-lined street from quaint independent bookstore. Bookstore is labor of love for bespectacled literary type that runs it to support Jane Austen habit. Corporate behemoth gobbles up independent and spits out bones. Burp! Will other independents survive beast or end up in belly? Tune in next week.
It wouldn’t be accurate either, because where the Astor Place Barnes & Noble is concerned, Goliath would be the skyrocketing New York real estate market, not the mega-chain itself.
In April, the Times reported that the store will close at the end of the year because, according to a Barnes & Noble spokesperson, “the rent has become too high” over its 13 years in the East Village location. The spokesperson quoted, Mary Ellen Keating, confirmed this in an e-mail.
In the windows of the vacant street-level space, under the shop’s top floor (formerly Astor Wines & Spirits), there are large signs heralding an incoming Walgreen’s. Directly across the street, there’s a Kinko’s. And at the East end of the block, there’s a K-Mart, steps away from a Starbucks, one intersection away from another Starbucks, and even closer than that to the Chase Bank on the ground floor of the luxury high rise directly across the street from the Astor Place cube.
Writers of classics and bestselling pulp don’t have to worry about convincing booksellers to carry their work indefinitely. But for mere mortals, shelf life in most bookstores is on a very short-term lease.
Naturally, author Lynne Tillman was delighted to learn that Barnes & Noble plans to stock her new novel “American Genius: A Comedy,” in several of its stores around the country for “at least a year.”
And though Tillman, an East Village resident, finds the chain less personal than smaller shops, and its vastness overwhelming, she thinks it’s a valuable addition to communities that don’t already have bookstores.
Tillman said, in a telephone interview, that the Astor Place Barnes & Noble “did try to do some good stuff in the community,” like a reading series that she read for a few times.
But “her” bookshop is the St. Mark’s Bookshop on St. Mark’s Place and Third Avenue. She goes there almost every day to browse and see which new titles are out. It’s where she buys most of her books, and thinks it may be the only store in the city that carries her back catalog. “I think they do support and display writers’ books, those who live in the neighborhood. So there’s a sense of community they have, which is excellent,” she said.
In “Bookstore,” which Tillman wrote about the now defunct Books & Co. on the Upper East Side, and described using the soon-to-be-shuttered store as a “fulcrum,” for a “literary, cultural history,” book selection was referred to as “curating.” Tillman thinks that good independent stores are curated in this way, and that St. Mark’s is a prime example of that tradition.
The dark vestibule of St. Mark’s Bookshop, which is the commercial tenant of a Cooper Union dorm, is stocked and papered, tidily, with various off-the-map publications, and advertisements for events and products of interest to those who would probably be happier curled up with Baudelaire or William T. Vollman than Dr. Phil or Nora Roberts or David Baldacci.
There’s a postcard promoting a musician named Vusi Mahlasela, another announcing a screening of an abstract-sounding film by a director named Kim Ki-duk, a card for a Jewish short film festival at Two Boots, copies of the American Book Review, The Poetry Project Newsletter, Boog City, and a catalog for the summer writing program at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.
Inside, the store is a narrow, roughshod triangle filled with free-standing, uncluttered book shelves and wall mounted stacks.
Postmodernish jazz plays just loudly enough over the sound system on a Tuesday afternoon, and the staff doesn’t seem to express the same kind of institutional malaise a career Strand employee might.
Across from the front desk there’s a round table covered with design books and graphic novels, one of the niches the store has carved for itself since it opened in 1977.
New releases are to the left and a woman of about 40 with dyed blonde hair is thumbing through “Tales of the Sisters Kane.” In the far corner, a college-aged kid is reading what looks like a design magazine, intently. And heading to the back there are lots of literary journals. Including these and all sorts of magazines, owner Bob Contant estimates there are over 1,500 periodicals in stock.
Contant, 64, and Terry McCoy, 63, are the last remaining of five original owners who worked together from the late 1960s through the mid 1970s at Eastside Books, which was located on St. Mark’s, before opening the store.
Contant, originally from the suburbs of Washington, came to New York from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and had previous experience working in a bookstore and in libraries. In Cambridge, he found book-buying to be a welcome alternative to library work, one that required creativity.
An English major in college, he had a vague notion of going into teaching, but it was the 60s “and school was not that compelling.”
McCoy, who grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, went to school in Iowa and Massachusetts, and then came to New York with acting in mind. For a time, he had worked at the Eighth Street Bookshop in the West Village too.
“In those days, you could actually live on what a book clerk’s salary was,” Contant says. The rent for his apartment on Third Street, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, was “under a hundred dollars a month.”
Contant and McCoy’s boss at Eastside Books was an absentee owner, the store was not doing well, financially, and with the labor they were putting into it, “we felt like we could do a better job ourselves,” McCoy said in a telephone interview. So it made sense for them to open their own shop.
It was a partnership and each member contributed $2,000. The rent at the original location, which was 13 St. Mark’s, was just $375, “and a lot of sweat equity for a couple of years before any of us drew a salary,” Contant said. All of them had second jobs during this period.
McCoy estimated that most St. Mark’s customers are under 50, but put the range between 18 and 50, approximately.
On the day I visited the store to interview Contant, the majority of customers there seemed to be college-aged. And although St. Mark’s does not stock books specifically for college courses at the surrounding universities, books on critical theory have been its “bread and butter,” for about the past 25 years, he said.
When the store opened in the late 70s, critical theory titles were usually just mixed into the philosophy sections of bookstores.
Prompted by the growing buzz surrounding post-structuralist philosophy, which influenced the writings of Susan Sontag, a longtime St. Mark’s customer, and “took over the English departments of American universities,” at the time, St. Mark’s created a section specifically for books on critical theory.
“We were just in on the curve for that. And we ran with it.” The books on post-structuralist philosophy, which was then what was going on in French academic circles, “flew off the shelf,” Contant said.
Originally these books only covered philosophy. But today the critical theory section includes books on a much wider variety of disciplines.
More recently the store has developed an expansive collection of graphic novels.
And for about the past five years the store has carried graphic design books, another specialty. “There are some niche publishers that publish very cutting edge graphic design books … And it may be a big business for us, but it’s not a big business on the whole. There are not a lot of stores that are selling graphic design books.”
The store has an open consignment policy and will hold on to anything anyone brings in for three months. If it sells, they’ll reorder it.
David Rees, creator of the “Get Your War On” series of comic strips and collections, sold some self-published books in the store that major publishers picked up, Contant said.
If there’s a guiding philosophy to the St. Mark’s Bookshop, it’s “to try to make it based on quality,” McCoy said. “It seems to me very simple. Instead of a demographic approach, or a lowest common denominator approach, or somebody else’s idea of what a bestseller’s going to be kind of approach, we try to carry the books and magazines and other items that we think our neighborhood would be interested in. And that’s all we do.”
You could say Barnes & Noble and St. Mark’s coexisted peacefully for the entire time the superstore was on Astor Place. You could say St. Mark’s survived Barnes & Noble. Or you could say St. Mark’s outlived Barnes & Noble, which is closest to the way that Contant described it to me.
Barnes & Noble did take at least one scalp in the neighborhood though. The Kinko’s across the street used to be Astor Books, a general interest bookstore. “They sort of saw the writing on the wall in terms of trying to compete because you know, what Barnes & Noble does when they open a store in a neighborhood where there are independent bookstores, is that they’ll put in, and they’ll initiate, a discount policy, which you can’t compete with until they put the store out of business, really. And then they go back to selling things at list price or they’ll have various kinds of promotional things. But, you know, they’re really kind of a predator.”
Astor Books saved them the trouble by closing before Barnes & Noble actually opened.
When Barnes & Noble opened they discounted books in this way, and St. Mark’s took a hit. But because they stayed focused on their niche areas, they remained competitive. Poetry was one section that helped them stay afloat during this time, Contant said. “We’ve always had a strong section in poetry, which is probably now the largest poetry collection of any retail store in the city. It’s very profitable for us, whereas [for] most bookstores, poetry is like a token thing. But if you focus on something and you develop it, you create an audience.”
St. Mark’s clientele has always been a more local, subject-specific clientele than Barnes & Noble’s, but Contant thinks and hopes that he might pick up some of the store’s student business.
American Booksellers Association spokesperson Meg Smith acknowledged, in a telephone interview, that maybe the David and Goliath/“You’ve Got Mail,” story described the environment for independent booksellers ten years ago, but said it doesn’t today.
Today, independents represent 20 percent of traditional bookstores. And 40 percent of books are sold in bookstores in general (with the remaining 60 percent sold through other means, like the Internet), she said. These figures come from market research conducted by IPSOS.
Bookstores are particularly hard to run, because as Contant explained, the profit margin (a little over 40 percent) is small compared to most to retail businesses. And you can’t adjust the price of a book the way you can a tomato.
To Smith, “independent bookstores [are] important for the culture of a community, and people love having [them] in a community.” But, she said “sometimes there’s a disconnect between loving [them] and actually understanding [that] that means you have to support the store by shopping there.”
Contant does think the independent book business is declining. “Bookstore sales are declining. And they’re declining here. They’ve been declining for a couple of years and this is just a reflection across the board.”
And he thinks today, large cities like New York, and college towns are really the only places where small stores like his can still exist.
Though he can’t pinpoint the exact reason, his “favorite theory” is that the book purchases people make online are less of a factor than the time people spend online period, rather than reading. And he thinks book culture is declining on a national level.
But at least where the Internet is concerned, his industry doesn’t face the same challenges as the music or video business, he said. “People can access books online, but the book itself is the best kind of format.” Whereas you can listen to music or watch a movie on your computer, people are unlikely to read entire books on a monitor. And with many New Yorkers living without the luxury of a doorman, going to the post office to pick up a book purchased online can be a hassle. He notices that people are impulsive, too; they’ll see a book they like and buy it on the spot, rather than saving some money with Amazon.
With the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, the KGB and Housing Works readings and others like them, Contant believes that there is still a strong literary culture downtown. (St. Mark’s does not have enough space for readings.) He sees the strain of the Internet on reading as similar to the advent of television, and thinks that while it probably will not improve, it will probably plateau.
“Every big event that makes use of peoples’ free time has its impact. But you know, reading a book is still a solitary experience. And it’s still unequaled by any other kind of involvement. And there will always be people who respond to that.”
-- Matt Elzweig
Friday, May 04, 2007
April 30, 2007
The Fountain Pen Hospital, takes its name from a time before ballpoints and roller balls existed. Before the 1960s, fountain pens were standard, and people came to this shop, founded by owner Terry Wiederlight’s father and grandfather 61 years ago, for refills and repairs. Today repairs account for “probably one-tenth of one percent,” of Wiederlight’s business. Once fountain pens began to fall out of use, the shop’s focus shifted to stationery and office supplies. But in the 1980s fountain pens became “trendy.” By the 90s, limited edition pens began coming out and Staples became a major contender in the office supply business, so Wiederlight decided it was time to concentrate on pens again.
What’s the appeal of pens?
It’s jewelry. Pens [are] jewelry today for the man, especially [for] the men. You know, they don’t wear chains—a nice pen is something you can pull out in a meeting, it looks really impressive.
What determines the value?
Probably brand awareness and rarity. Like, have you heard of Montblanc?
Have you heard of Krone? No. So people will go to the name that they’ve known. Most of the people. Or, some of these companies have very, very unique limited editions. You know, very different.
Who typically stops in to buy the pricier pens?
We deal with a lot of high profile people.
Bill Cosby, Tom Hanks, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Jerry Bruckheimer was a big customer. My father, years ago, used to sell to Duke Ellington. Giuliani always used to come in here.
What kinds of items did he buy?
He used to come to buy refills for his pen all the time. He had Montblanc.
How many of the pens are massed produced and how many are individually made or made on a smaller scale?
“We probably have the largest selection of limited editions worldwide. A lot of the companies will make one limited edition a year. Like Montblanc will make one or two limited editions per year. And they sell very, very, very quickly. [We’ve] seen a skyrocket in the way they’ve gone up in value.
How many pens do you have that historical figures actually used?
We don’t get into that. We have a display upstairs—Krone, he has his own display of that stuff, but [there’s] not much of a market for it. Rarity and limited editions are a very, very big aftermarket. A lot of people sell them back to us, and then we resell them. Krone does a lot of historical stuff. Like, they did [a] Babe Ruth [pen]. They bought portions of his bat and they put that into the pen. They did 288 pens. And it sold unbelievably fast. We sold out in a week.
What are some others?
The John Hancock [with a piece of the desk he practiced his signature on in the clip], The Wright Brothers – there’s part of the plane [its wing fabric, in the clip]. I mean, all very, very unique. It’s got a special niche. You got to be different today.
Believe it or not, [Krone’s] first pen that he came out with has Abraham Lincoln’s DNA.
What is it, like blood?
I don’t know what it is, but it’s stripped, (points to a photo of it in the Fountain Pen catalog) it’s encrusted in this part right here, his DNA. [According to the Fountain Pen Hospital’s Web site, this DNA was reproduced using authenticated strands of the 16th President’s hair and embedded into an amethyst on each cap.]
Abraham Lincoln’s DNA …
Yeah, isn’t that sick? It’s crazy. But the fucking pen sold out! It was unbelievable. It’s different. It’s unique. Mount Everest, had part of the mountain, you know, just, all these different things: Shakespeare, [authenticated pieces of his famous mulberry tree, inset into gold and sterling silver relief]. Houdini, [powdered fragments of his actual escape keys mixed with sterling silver]. They do a certain amount and they throw away the mold.
Montblanc does a writers and a Patron of the Arts series every year. Does that mean these are the same type of pens each of the writers used?
No, no, basically using his name on it, and [the] story about it. [There’s] Fitzgerald. And the first one they ever did, [Lorenzo De Medici], it came out at $1,600. Now the pen’s worth $7,000. The Hemingway came out at $600. Now it’s up to $2,800. So a lot of these have really, gone, crazy in value.
So as far as value is concerned, there’s brand awareness and rarity. But what about the construction?
Well every pen is different. I mean, you have some encrusted with diamonds. It all depends – some who use sterling silver, some use resin, some use celluloids. It’s all different materials. See years ago they didn’t have plastic, so they used celluloids. And a few of companies today came out with the celluloids because you can do very beautiful things with celluloid. The colors that you can produce in celluloid is remarkable. Like Visconti and Omas, they’ve done a lot of things with celluloid.
Also, in a fountain pen, if it has a gold point, a gold point makes it a better writer, a solid gold point, on the pen. They also make steel. Obviously the gold points, on fountain pens, they tend to sell for a lot more money, but the gold one’s going to tend to write a lot smoother.
So if people are buying these high-end pens, are they using them or keeping them in showcases at home?
Some do. We tell our consumers ‘you buy it, use it.’
-- Matt Elzweig