Bob Contant, Dedicated Bohemian Bookseller, Dies at 80

Bob Contant, who stubbornly sustained his countercultural bookshop for nearly four decades, even as it decamped farther and farther from its punk-rock playground on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village while the demand in the gentrifying neighborhood for titles on poststructuralist philosophy and critical theory dwindled, died on Nov. 6 at his home in Manhattan. He was 80.

His wife, Marilyn Berkman, a poet, said the cause was complications of Covid.

A career bookseller, Mr. Contant opened the St. Mark’s Bookshop in a small storefront at 13 St. Mark’s Place with three partners in 1977. It slowly became a magnet for a range of authors and artists, among them Susan Sontag, Richard Howard, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Glass, Thurston Moore, Madonna and William S. Burroughs (who was drawn to the shop every Saturday to buy science fiction books and, Mr. Contant once said, because he had a crush on one of the employees).

Mr. Contant was the principal owner and buyer for the shop, which until it closed was generally acknowledged to be the oldest independent Manhattan bookstore still owned by any of its founders.

Mr. Contant, left, with one of the store’s other owners, Peter Dargis, in the early 1980s. (As the sign indicates, the word “Saint” was sometimes spelled out in the store’s name, sometimes not.)Credit…via Marilyn Berkman

“The store in its heyday was a literary headquarters for punks, and an outpost for St. Mark’s Poetry Project poets,” Ada Calhoun wrote in “St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street“ (2015). It was, she added, “a polished jewel in the scuzzy crown of the East Village, the place where countless aspiring artists bought their first books by Bukowski or Ginsberg or Sartre.”

Ms. Calhoun said in an interview: “I think about how many people found their first love of great literature and theory at that bookstore. It’s an incredible legacy.”

The St. Mark’s Bookshop, the New York Times book critic Dwight Garner wrote in 2012, “is the place to go when your spirits are sagging, when you need a reminder that the world’s literary culture is still big and weird and vibrant and all but unknowable.”

The store never invested in potential revenue add-ons like regular book fairs or readings, and it never sold used books, offered deep discounts or opened an in-store cafe.

Instead, it stubbornly stuck to its classic business model. It sold avant-garde literature, books from small independent presses on subjects like queer theory and anarchy, artisanal greeting cards, art monographs, photo albums of Russian prison tattoos and a selection of 2,000 magazines and underground newspapers, as well as booklets that hungry local writers delivered on consignment.

The St. Mark’s Bookstore in 1992. In 1987, 10 years after it opened, it moved to more spacious quarters on the same block.Credit…Monica Almeida/The New York Times

No books, Mr. Contant once said, that were “too popular.”

Ms. Calhoun described Mr., Contant and his longtime co-owner Terry McCoy as “a kind of erudite Abbott and Costello in jeans and black sneakers, who gained a reputation for caring more about the life of the mind than about the particulars of running a business.”

Over the decades, Mr. Contant grew bitter about the volcanic upheaval in the East Village’s demographics, from hippie to yuppie. But he remained committed to nurturing the fledgling writers and poets who were dedicated customers and mentees.

Paul Yamazaki, the principal buyer at City Lights Booksellers & Publishers in San Francisco, a store very much like the St. Mark’s Bookshop, said in an email that Mr. Contant “shared his enthusiasms with elegant, understated gusto.”

Robert Gregory Contant was born on March 17, 1943, in Rochester, N.Y. His father, Peter, was a chief engineer for General Motors. His mother, Dorothy (Wells) Contant, was a homemaker. The couple divorced when Bob was 5, and he moved with his mother to Maryland, where she remarried.

He attended the University of Rochester and the University of Maryland and worked in libraries in Washington before marrying and divorcing and relocating to Cambridge, Mass., where he married and divorced again and worked in the Harvard libraries. Ms. Berkman, whom he married in 1989, said he was fired for refusing to dismiss student workers who had participated in campus protests against the Vietnam War.

Lured to New York from managing a bookstore on Harvard Square by ads in The Village Voice promoting the East Side Bookstore, he was hired there in 1972. He and Mr. McCoy, a co-worker, were encouraged by the manager to start their own store.

After he worked as manager of the 8th Street Bookshop in Greenwich Village, Mr. Contant, Mr. McCoy and two other colleagues, Tom Evans and Peter Dargis, opened the St. Mark’s Bookshop in November 1977 in a $345-a-month storefront at 13 St. Mark’s Place. (Today, apartments in the building sell for upward of $1.6 million and the Thai-inspired dessert emporium on the ground floor offers Soku tangerine soju seltzer for $10 a can.)

As the East Village exploded with punk vibrancy and business boomed, the idiosyncratic store moved to more spacious quarters at 12 St. Mark’s Place in 1987. Six years later, the two remaining partners, Mr. Contant and Mr. McCoy, were invited by the Cooper Union to relocate nearby to the institution’s new dormitory development at 31 Third Avenue, a sleek, award-winning space designed by Zivkovic Associates.

Shoppers at the store in 1992. Mr. Contant, one observer wrote, cared “more about the life of the mind than about the particulars of running a business.”Credit…Monica Almeida/The New York Times

But the 2008 recession, combined with a proposed doubling of the store’s $20,000-a-month rent, proved insufficient, even after a generous loan from Robert Rodale, the publisher of wellness books and magazines, as well as support from Salman Rushdie and Patti Smith, a crowdsourcing campaign that raised $24,000, and a concession by Cooper Union in 2011 to reduce the rent temporarily.

In 2014, the store moved to its fourth and final home, at 136 East Third Street, a side street, as a commercial tenant in a city housing project a half-mile southeast of the original location. Mr. Contant bought out Mr. McCoy for $1, and by the time he grudgingly shuttered the bookshop in its last incarnation in 2016, he owed the city something like $70,000 in back rent; he also owed hefty sums to publishers and wholesalers and some $35,000 in unpaid sales tax. Mr. Contant went bankrupt.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Contant is survived by a daughter, Daryl Prezioso, from his marriage to Annette Ratteree, which ended in divorce; his sister, Pamm Houchens; and two grandsons.

“The bookshop turned St. Mark’s Place into a cultural destination,” Ms. Berkman said by email. “The store launched the careers of many writers and introduced once esoteric subjects like critical theory to a wider readership.”

When the store finally closed, Mr. Contant was teary. “It’s been half my lifetime,” he said. “Terry said once that it was a calling; I think that sums it up.”

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