[A slightly edited version of this appeared in yesterday’s Beat newsletter.]
This week’s shocking announcement of the closing of St. Marks Comics set off a wave of nostalgia among thousands of people – myself included. I guess the ’90s really died that day.
I think of St. Marks as a ’90s thing because from 1994 to 1998, I lived a block or so away on 9th Street. It was a fun time for Astor Place and the East Village and I was young enough to enjoy some of it – or at least to buy some of the fancy shoes that 8th Street used to specialize in. (For non-New Yorkers, St. Marks is the name for 8th Street east of Astor Place at Broadway.) I brought most of my vinyl clothing at Joyce Leslie at University and not at Trash and Vaudeville, the famed punk/clubwear store on St. Marks, but I definitely still have a trinket or two from there tucked away in my jewelry archives.
Back then, St. Marks Comics was a hang out for my comics crowd, usually after dinner at Around the Clock or some Indian place on 6th Street. In the pre-Internet days, we got our information and inspiration from walking around and going to book and record and video stores. Looking at the magazine covers at Tower Video on 4th or the Astor Place Barnes and Noble was a great way to see what was hot and up and coming, and Tower Records was where you picked up your new KMFDM singles or Radiohead CDs.
And, of course, a trip to St. Marks Comics (or just St. Marks for short) was where to see the comics covers and check our who had a new book, or once in a while get a toy or “zine” as the underground-ish niche culture publications were known.
Anyway, I’m doing the old fart reminiscing thing, but it’s okay because someday you will do it too! You’ll be crying someday when Barcade closes. It’s life. When I lived in LA, I used to remark that because I lived near a library, a good bookstore. and Tower Records on Sunset, I had the “total” of human culture all within a few blocks. What I didn’t know is that I would soon enough be holding it all in the palm of my hand.
Today, January 30th, 2019, I returned to my old haunts for a lovely lunch of Vietnamese food with Whitney Matheson, my old blogging colleague, and in the late Aughts/early Teens a member of a small group of women writers about comics that used to gather occasionally. Other members included Kai Ming Cha, Evie Nagy, and Nisha Gopalan. I miss them and those days as well! It was great to see Whitney and catch up with her work and hear about her school-age daughter.
Afterward, I went to a café to work and it began to snow. Nice big flakes! A brisk arctic wind picked up. My plan was to visit St. Marks Comics (Owner Mitch Cutler and I had emailed and he’d said I should just stop by) and the filigree of rapidly melting snow provided a nice garnish to streets that were now simply drab without the energy and style of ye olden days.
I am well aware that New York is undergoing a retail apocalypse, but I seldom go to the East Village these days, and I was still surprised and saddened to see endless empty storefronts on block after block on the walk over.
I’m told there are 17 empty stores on the St Marks St. block between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. That is a lot. What remains is mostly Japanese restaurants, a single bar from the punk days (Bull McCabes) and a lot of vape shops. Even the gaudy places where you’d buy trendy cheap sunglasses in the summer and hats in the winter were mostly scrubbed away.
St. Marks Comics was busy and Mitch had the air of someone with a lot on his mind. “It’s been the strangest 24 hours of my life,” he told me. The thousands of messages and memories must have been overwhelming. We retreated to the back of the store to chat a bit, and I asked him what had led to the closure. He repeated what he’d told other places: “The retail environment has a lot of challenges and it’s enough.”
While many comics shops are closing, it is fair to say that St. Marks Comics has a lot of unique issues. The general decline of the shopping district itself and New York’s brutal retail environment are as much concerns as the comics industry issues we talk about here.
Mitch didn’t want to go into any specifics about all that, as is his right, but he said I could quote him on one thing. “I’ve never once said that comics are dying,” he told me when I asked if that oft-repeated narrative had any relevance to his story. “That doesn’t mean there aren’t issues, but I don’t believe that for a minute.”
“We’re going to have a wake, not a funeral,” he said, saying that the store would continue on for the next month with sales and cleaning of long-lost vaults of stuff. And indeed our conversation was often interrupted by people asking prices or wanting to deal.
I’ll tell you one thing if you are local… GET OVER TO ST. MARKS COMICS ASAP! They are an Aladdin’s cave of everything from deluxe boxed sets (many long out of print) to mini-comics, toys, collectibles…for now all 30% off.
As I left I took the photo on the right you see above. The photo on the left is from a photo shoot I did for a zine piece I did when I first moved to NYC. It was about how gross it was compared to living in LA. Undoubtedly the most miserable self-indulgent thing I’d ever written and the editor made me rewrite it so it wasn’t so whiny. I knew I had the old photo and when I heard of the closing I managed to find it. I’m not standing in front of St. Marks Comics but a few steps away in front of what’s now Yakitori Taisho. I looked around for the same grillwork on the stairs in the old photo and found the spot. Instead of a phone kiosk there’s now an ATM there. (Back in the day you did not dare take money from an ATM in the E.Vill or LES for fear of getting mugged right away.)
Past the ATM was a row of shuttered stores. On 3rd Avenue what had once been the famous (and delicious) St Marks Pizza and then a string of falafel places is closed. The Continental, a dive bar rock club, is closed. St Marks Books is long gone. Even McDonald’s is gone. It’s pretty clear this whole block is going to be razed for a high rise building soon.
On the way to the subway, (next to where I used to live) I passed the Cooper Union, where both Lincoln and Obama spoke and my grandfather went to college on an art scholarship, and then the Cube at Astor Place. I decided to duck into the K-Mart where U2 had once played to kick off their ill-fated Pop Mart Tour. It had never been a cheerful place but it was now indescribably dismal and the whole third floor had been removed and turned into something else, the escalators up whisked away, all the departments squeezed into two floors.
The retail apocalypse had truly arrived.
Here’s an update to the newsletter version. When I first posted the news of St. Marks closing, the post went mildly viral and I got an influx of “comics purists” arguing that the arrival of “hipsters” and “SJWs” had killed St. Mark’s. This led to the most epic diss from Sue of DCWKA. The idea that the “ARRIVAL” of Hipsters to the East Village had ruined everything is like saying McDonald’s has been destroyed by having so many hamburgers on the menu. At one time you had to prove you were a hipster by MOVING to the East Village. What ever you call cutting edge kids now have moved far away, to Bushwick and Ridgewood or New Jersey or Philadelphia. I realize having any kind of rational discussion with people who think hipsters have invaded the East Village is impossible, but looking at St. Mark’s closing in light of the current comics industry is certainly valid.
The reality is, the industry IS changing. A very old school, hodge podge secret club house like St Mark’s Comics was acceptable when it started in the 80s. And the then-19 Cutler was just the latest in an astonishing long line of teenaged entrepreneurs who have huge a huge impact on comics. Everything else has changed in 36 years, comics retailing is no exception.
The closing of St. Mark’s is a product of the comics retail environment, but also the cultural retail environment, where Amazon and Walmart are taking over everything, and the unique New York retail environment, where a street that was once a fun, hip destination is now a dismal row of vaping stores.
Arguing with C*micsgaters is a waste of time, although it can supply laughs. While the racist, sexist, transphobic, anti-gay elements of the movement are repugnant and illogical enough, it’s also a bunch of scared people who don’t want to face change and express it by acting out and bigotry.
You know, I don’t want to face change either sometimes. I don’t want to face climate change and seeing people dying of heat stroke in one part of the world and freezing to death in another while thousands of plant and animal species die, the Amazon basin and the Great Coral Reef crumble away, the sky and land and water are infused with poison and every other Killraven cliche comes to life.
When that’s too scary to think about, I worry about my comics shop.
Winter isn’t coming. It’s here. I hope Mitch gets that 90 hours of sleep. He’s earned it. The rest of us will have to stay awake a while longer.
See next post!