2007

St. Mark’s Comics, located on 11 St. Marks Place, East Village New York, has been serving the local population for thirty four years, that is since the owner bought the property in 1986 when he was nineteen years old.  Sandwiched between Sing-Sing Karaoke and a back and foot rub massage studio, St. Mark’s Comics is one of the longest standing businesses on the famous street of St. Marks, which is a tremendous accomplishment given the number of social changes that have contributed to the development of St. Marks.  The sheer volume and variety of items lining the shelves from floor to ceiling echoes the diversity of the people of New York, and therefore is appealing to people from many different walks of life.

Small Business Trials and Tribulations

St. Marks Comics has weathered many storms despite the economic hardships that accompany maintaining a small business in today’s political and economic climate. St. Marks Comics has had two other locations in addition to their constant presence on St. Marks Place.  According to the owner of the store, Mitch Cutler, they were sadly on the wrong side of Chamber street after 911. The police considered everything south of that a crime scene, and so when they tried to reopen there was too much damage done to the neighborhood: thousands of people lost their jobs and were relocated. There was nobody there to sell books to. Additionally, their store in Brooklyn heights from 1988-2012 closed after rent was increased, and there was a fire in 2011 at their current location on St. Marks Place. Though they have had other locations, St. Marks Place has been and continues to be their primary location.

When asked if he had any advice for people who want to open their own business (for example young 19-year-old entrepreneurs) Mitch’s advice came in two parts. The first was absolutely don’t do it. But if you are determined to do it, the second piece of advice was to figure out every possible expense to determine how much it would cost to be open for six months without a single person coming through the door, then double it, and know that you still don’t have enough.  In the owner’s view, “the forces of the universe are arrayed specifically against small businesses owners,” because there is no credit for small businesses.

"The Forces of the Universe are Arrayed Specifically Against Small Business Owners" Mitch Cutler, St. Marks Comics

What frustrates him the most is when people don’t reconcile their inconsistencies.  For example by talking about how much they like small businesses because they are the fabric of New York city, complaining about being tired of the drug store and coffee shop chains being on every corner, and then continuing to vote for people whose policies don’t support small businesses. Or, by coming into his store, seeing an item that they like, and then going out of their way to purchase it online from a different source ( in effect taking away business from local shops).

Mitch built up St. Marks Comics himself and all his hard work in dodging  potential setbacks is made worth it when he sees the impact his store has had on generations of customers who depend on him. “It was very heartening that on Wednesday morning, September 12th, when we were here open with our new comics ( every Wednesday is New Comics Day), we had a guy say to his friends ‘hey I told you they’d be open!’ ”

St. Marks Comics is truly a storefront survivor and deserves its status as a staple of the community.

Historical Significance

Randal Farm Map showing East 8th Street. Image courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

St. Marks Place is the outgrowth of farmland that was owned originally by Dutch Director General Peter Stuyvesant, who bought the land around the three-block radius of Manhattan St. Marks Place in New York City (now called the Bowery), from the Dutch West India Company.

The entire block of St. Marks between Third and Second Avenue was built by in 1831-1832 by real estate developer Thomas E. Davis. This area has experienced multiple waves of immigration. By the civil war what we know today as the East Village was called Kleindeutschland (“Little Germany”).  In the 1840s and 1850s New York’s steady stream of immigrants became a torrent as the Irish who fled the potato famine settled in Five Points (today’s Chinatown) and most of the Germans moved into the East Village.  To better accommodate the burgeoning population of over fifty thousand  people in the years following the civil war, many of the single-family homes became profitable boarding houses otherwise known as tenements, which were one of newest innovations in immigrant housing at the time. This phenomena was not unique to St. Marks—as many as thirty percent of New Yorkers lived in boarding houses by the middle of the nineteenth century. These tenements drew people from all social class ranks. However, while St. Marks held onto its fading charm, much of the rest of Kleindeutschland was taken over by the newest population of immigrants. As the German population thinned, other immigrants arrived, including Jews displaced by the pogroms in Europe, along with Hungarians, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians and Puerto Ricans who’d settled in the area in the 1950s.

Since Peter Stuyvesant bought this area it has experienced waves of artistic, political, and social change. According to Paul Owen, deputy head of news for The Guardian, it is “home to the largest number of cultural and historical luminaries per square inch than any other place on earth.” Some of its early residents were well known, including James Fenimore Cooper and Alexander Hamilton’s widow, Eliza, whose house at No. 4 is still standing.  St. Mark’s Comics occupies the basement of a red brick tenement building just doors away from the tenement featured in Led Zeppelin’s ‘Physical Graffiti’ Album cover.

Social Identity of the Neighborhood

The East Village can now be classified as a hippie enclave, attracting mostly young artsy people as evidenced by the east village age structure data from Statistical Atlas and the census tract data from social explorer.

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Statistical Atlas Age Stratification of the East Village in NY

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This map from social explorer shows that there is a higher concentration of people engaged in the arts here as compared to the surrounding areas.

Gender also plays a role in stocking comic book shelves. When asked what kind of customers frequented his shop, the owner of St. Marks Comics replied that based on anecdotal evidence he has collected over the course of his thirty seven years of experience in the comic book industry, he believes that, “we have the best educated, most female clientele (of any comic shop in the country).”  This claim is remarkable given the traditional male nerd stereotype associated with comic books and action figures.  According to the owner the rest of the media has caught up to the idea that there are comics that women like! When stocking his shelves his tactic is “success breeds success.” If a series is popular it will continue to attract more interest.

Modern Day Character

In this age of constant technological advancement and rapid takeover of small businesses by big corporate entities it is necessary to present the public with an irresistible product. Encouragingly for those of us traditionalists, Mitch is not worried about competition from digital comics because people still like hard copy books. St. Marks Comics is different from other stores of its kind by it’s selection, and Mitch would rather to be known for the range of comics that he collects rather than for being the provider that sells comics for a nickel less ( as if often the plug used by online third party websites use). There is even an exchange credit system in place if you want to give away a comic of your own in return for one in the store. Mitch is so dedicated to this mission of inclusivity that St. Marks Comics was the center of a scandal in 1992 for carrying serial killer trading cards. But according to Mitch no publicity is bad publicity. In his view he’s just doing his duty in serving all of his client’s varied interests and proclivities.

Much like people of different backgrounds, comics come from multiple places such as warehouses, other stores, and even people’s own homes. A game they like to play in the comic book industry is: take two vastly different characters from different universes and come up with a plausible team up as to why they are in the same book and what the story is. The different populations that exist within census tract 38, which is the border that encompasses St. Marks Place creates an interesting game for Mitch. In order to keep up with the diverse interests of his community, St. Marks Comics carries an incredibly versatile collection of comic books, contributing to a larger cultural story in his shop. The owner’s motto is “Hail comics! Sell one and two more shall take its place”, which appropriately describes both the nature of the industry and the turnover this area has seen just within the last 185 years since its inception.

 

“Hail comics! Sell one and two more shall take its place” Mitch Cutler, St. Marks Comics

Citations:

  • Nevius, James. “The Strange History of the East Village’s Most Famous Street.” Curbed NY. Curbed NY, 04 Sept. 2014.
  • “The Greatest Grid.” Randel Map Gallery.
  • Owen, Paul. “St Marks Place: Is This America’s Coolest Street?” The Guardian.
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