A Conversation with Margarita Shalina, Small Press Book Buyer for St. Mark’s Bookshop
Welcome to Akashic in Good Company, a weekly column featuring managing editor Johanna Ingalls’s interviews and profiles with many of the remarkable people in the publishing industry today. Over the past fifteen years, Akashic has worked with an amazing array of talented, hard-working, committed people and Akashic would not be the company it is today without their help and advice along the way. This week’s installment features Margarita Shalina, small press book buyer for St. Mark’s Bookshop.
My first memories of St. Mark’s Bookshop in the East Village are from childhood trips to the City with my family. I was fascinated with the store’s edginess; without really recognizing the author names or the types of books the store carried, I knew it was distinctively different from the suburban stores of my Massachusetts childhood. St. Mark’s contained the excitement and danger that New York City represented to me in those days in the form of beautiful books. I continued to frequent the store as a student at Barnard in the ’90s, and from the early days of Akashic, St. Mark’s was and remains an important part of our business. To me, the face of St. Mark’s Bookshop is Margarita Shalina, the small press book buyer and events coordinator—and, in full disclosure, a close friend of Akashic’s.
Margarita Shalina was born in Leningrad, Russia and moved to the United States at the age of seven. She lived in a variety of places, eventually settling in New York City, where she grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The city was different then, she says. “This was not the city that it is now. It was weird and it was scary . . . it was abandoned . . . filled with red light districts. Just kind of a little bit overwhelming at times. But interesting.”
She attended high school at the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts and then went to Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts (both in Manhattan). “We designed our own majors . . . it was like the freak school where all the weirdo freaks went . . . and I guess the closest that my major would be is sort of like a mixture of English and Comparative Lit . . . and then I got certified to teach English as a foreign language.”
I ask Margarita about her work experience before St. Mark’s.
“The first thing that anyone ever gave me money as compensation for was translation work. My mom was a translator when I was growing up. She did technical translation, which usually has an incredibly fast turnaround time. The content is usually really boring . . . And she would sit me down and make me look up words for her and make me smooth out language, ’cause my language developed in a different way than hers did. She would pay me to do this stuff for her.”
In the ’90s, Margarita had a series of jobs, working at several Manhattan bookstores including Barnes & Noble on 18th St & 5th Ave.; the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bookshop; Spring Street Books (now closed); Rizzoli on West Broadway (now closed), the Museum of Modern Art Bookshop (a job that didn’t last long when she refused to remove her nose ring and quit); and briefly at the erotic publishing company, Blue Moon Books, founded by Barney Rosset (who is best-known as the American publisher of Samuel Beckett).
In February of 2001, she was hired at St. Mark’s, and shortly after she became the small press buyer. She was also interested in starting a reading series at the bookshop.
Initially, the owners of St. Mark’s were resistant to hosting readings at the store, so Margarita began selling books at offsite events. “The first one was for FOUND Magazine. We sold books on the Queen of Hearts, that steamboat that you can rent out for events. We made around $1,500, which is unusual for an event.”
Hoping this successful event would change the minds of the storeowners, Margarita again suggested an in-store reading series, but the owners were still a bit skeptical and Margarita continued just selling at offsite events.
For a short time, St. Mark’s partnered with a nearby bar that hosted a reading series. Margarita eventually got her wish when the store began hosting in-store events, launching with the fantastic Eileen Myles. “It was wonderful . . . she’s such a cultural icon and such an awesome person in general.”
The Myles event, and the many that followed, helped build St. Mark’s iconic status. And anyone familiar with St. Mark’s also knows that the store has struggled immensely in recent years as New York City’s East Village becomes increasingly expensive. A nearby Barnes & Noble closed down years ago, apparently due to a rent increase that made its location on Astor Place prohibitively expensive. St. Mark’s has been hanging on since it opened in 1977, and a lot of that is due to the overwhelming outpouring of support that began with the local community and spread worldwide.
Margarita explains: “The SignOn.org petition, which received over 44,000 signatures from people in New York and throughout the world, was started by Joyce Ravitz and Frances Goldin of the Cooper Square Committee. Frances is Mumia Abu-Jamal’s literary agent. Historically, the Cooper Square Committee, with Jane Jacobs, is responsible for stopping Robert Moses and his plans to build a superhighway through lower Manhattan, namely the Village. The petition is what drew Michael Moore and Slavoj Žižek, respectively, to speak at the shop at the height of Occupy Wall Street. It also moved Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer to intervene and negotiate a temporary rent decrease for the bookshop from our landlord, Cooper Union. The clock on that decrease has since run out.”
I know these past few years of financial stress on the bookstore have been extremely upsetting to Margarita, as St. Mark’s is her second home (or maybe even her first home). She lives mere blocks from the store and has lived in the area since her childhood, which means she has witnessed the dramatic changes to her neighborhood.
“I grew up down here and I live here and I work here and this is my neighborhood. And it’s changing in ways that are sort of . . . I try not to be a crank about things and I try not to be closed off about things, but it’s changing in a way that isn’t necessarily positive . . . I feel like this neighborhood has contributed a lot to the culture of New York, and to the world, quite frankly, because so many artists and writers came out of here. Artists need low rent. Writers need low rent in order to be able to produce, and at the time when this was essentially a ghetto, there was so much art coming out of this place. And now it’s changing and it’s okay for it to change, but what’s happening is it’s becoming inhospitable to an artistic community.”
We talk about this change and how it has directly affected St. Mark’s. Increases in rent have driven out many artists and writers over the years who would have been frequent customers at the store, but even those who have left the City remember and acknowledge what an important part St. Marks’ Bookshop plays in New York City’s cultural identity.
“If we go under, it’s not for lack of support from the neighborhood . . . People have been amazing. And the thing about the bookstore, how can I say this, I feel like places sometimes transcend their original purpose and function in a different way than they were intended to—so where the original intent of the bookstore was to sell books, I feel like it’s transcended into a meeting place, a place where people can come in and make contact with one another . . . A place where if you can’t get published through traditional venues, you can still put your voice out into the world.”
I ask her to talk about events she’s looking forward to this spring. “We’re doing an event with Maggie Nelson and Wayne Koestenbaum that I’m really excited about. I’ve wanted to do an event with Maggie Nelson for a long time . . . Her latest book is The Art of Cruelty. And I’m really excited about that one . . . It’s on Thursday, March 21st. And another really exciting one is on April 25th—we have Sarah Schulman, and she has a new book out on queer studies in Israel and Palestine . . . I like doing stuff that’s a little different.”
In closing, I ask Margarita to talk a bit about her life outside of the bookstore, since I know she is also a translator and a talented writer in her own right.
“I had a good year last year. The translation that I did that I’m most proud of is I contributed translations to the Pussy Riot book that Feminist Press put out . . . It was an honor . . . I really believe in this First Amendment shit. I really do believe in free speech and the freedom of expression. So when the Pussy Riot book came up, I was so honored. There are so many great translators who contributed to it.”
About her own writing she says, “I don’t do fiction writing. I do essays and poetry, but the poetry part is kind of winding down these days, just temporarily. I’ve been doing a lot of essays. I interviewed Genesis P-Orridge for Yeti magazine. It’s a really long interview . . . And I’m working on a blackout essay for an anthology on the death of the American Dream . . . What I’m trying to do right now is get together enough essays for a book length collection, which I’m almost at.
“Also, the dates are still being finalized but sometime between 4/3 and 4/7, I’ll be joining Rami Shamir and Maggie Craig on their cross country book tour. They’ve both published novels independently. Anjelica Young fiction editor of Evergreen Review and I will be guest readers. There aren’t many bookstores in Detroit it seems so we’re looking at art spaces and punk houses as venues.”
I have no doubt that this committed and dedicated New York City writer will continue to contribute in her various ways to the literary and cultural scene for many, many years to come. And I truly hope St. Mark’s Bookshop succeeds in its fight for survival and one day receives the landmark status it truly deserves.
Posted: Mar 7, 2013