← Back

Business of the Month: Village Works, 12 St. Mark’s Place

Your input is needed! Today we feature our latest Business of the Month — help us to select the next. Tell us which independent store you love in Greenwich Village, the East Village, or NoHo: click here to nominate your favorite. Want to help support small businesses? Share this post with friends.

We may be biased in thinking that the Village is where the city’s heart beats the loudest. But if you step into our March Business of the Month, Village Works (12 St. Marks Place), you may be able to actually hear it. Ba dum… ba dum…ba dum…  Part-bookstore, part-gallery, part-gathering space, Village Works is devoted to celebrating the cultural legacy of the neighborhood and to helping current generations of residents and artists engage with that legacy as they write the next chapter in the story of the Village. 

Joseph Sheridan moved to New York from his hometown of Los Angeles as a young man in 1983. He moved for love. New York was supposed to be a stop on the way to Berlin, where the object of his affections was located. Once here, however, he fell in love with the city instead and made it no further in his journey. At the time, New York was, one might say, an acquired taste. Mired as it was in social and economic challenges, it enjoyed limited mainstream appeal as a relocation destination. And yet, amidst these crises, the city, and certainly our neighborhoods, seemed wide open to creative possibilities and to individuals who found no place for themselves in mainstream culture. Joseph marveled at the diversity of car-lessly accessible social scenes all around him; and, for a while, he stood on their periphery, gaining exposure to the street art scene, the gay black scene, the skateboarding scene, and the gallery scene, among others. Eventually, though, he became part of the club scene, running the Café con Leche parties at Paradise Garage, and of the arts scene, opening the street art-oriented Urban Works gallery on Mulberry Street.

The subcultures that converged in the Village during the 80s and 90s gradually dissipated or transformed into something else as the neighborhood and the city changed during the decades that followed. Joseph, however, continued to hold an abiding fascination with the cultural ferment he witnessed during his first decades in New York, as well as an urge to share this enthusiasm. This led him to consider the possibility of launching a gallery/bookstore devoted to New York downtown culture. But when he ran this idea by friends, instead of encouragement, he got a sobering piece of advice: “New York culture is over. Get over it. [The neighborhood] is just becoming suburban like the rest of America.” Joseph’s idea almost succumbed to that splash of cold water. But then COVID happened.

The COVID crisis managed, in a matter of weeks, to transform the neighborhood into a bizarro world approximation of the place that Joseph encountered when he first moved in almost fifty years ago. Gone were the tourists, the students, and those with the means to decamp to summer homes. The ones left behind often found themselves confronted with an imperative to do things differently and with a range of unexpected possibilities. All of the sudden, a bookstore about a longstanding local tradition of creative experimentation did not sound like such a crazy idea even to Joseph’s friends. Moreover, commercial rents had plummeted, offering small entrepreneurs the opportunity to pursue their business dreams — an all too rare opportunity just a few months before. And Joseph took advantage of it and launched Village Works in February of 2021 on the corner of 1st Avenue and East 3rd Street.

Village Works hewed to Joseph’s vision from the outset, even if on a limited scale. The books initially came from Joseph’s own collection. But they were gradually supplemented by donations, self-published books sold on consignment, and, when the cashflow allowed, new acquisitions.

Joseph’s connections to the world of street art paved the way for the first shows. Soon, however, artists started approaching the store to propose their own. Two such artists were brothers Damian and Dominic Bielak, young artists/poets and founders of the Brooklyn Social Club who wanted to do a show of photographs of 1990s Williamsburg that reflected a yearning for the DYI ethos that pervaded that neighborhood when they were growing up. They overcame Joseph’s resistance to host non-Village-related shows by arguing that their exhibit actually captured a cultural spillover from the East Village. The show was a success, and Joseph was so struck by the commonality of his and the brothers’ passion for the city that he made them junior partners in the business and, in so doing, drew the brothers’ creative network into the store’s social circle.

Village Works more than doubled its book selection during its first couple of years, developing especially strong sections in street art, poetry, photography, music, and biography. It also held dozens of shows by New York artists and published catalogs for many of them. The store expanded its zines department and even started carrying apparel by local artists.

Everything was going well until the store’s suspiciously short 2-year lease expired and the resurgent commercial market asserted itself, pushing their space well beyond their financial reach. The owners’ search for a new home only yielded prohibitively priced results, until fortune smiled their way. Joseph got word that the owners of the historic German American Shooting Society Clubhouse building (and original landlords of the iconic and sadly-departed February 2016 Business of the Month St Mark’s Bookshop) Charles and Kathy Fitzgerald had lost a commercial tenant and were specifically looking for an independent bookstore to take its place. Joseph approached the couple and, despite the store’s limited means, walked out of the meeting with an extremely supportive lease and able to move in right away.

The store’s incredible new space has allowed the owners to expand their operation, increasing their stock of books, prints, and wares, as well as their capacity for events. An artist workspace has evolved organically toward the back of the store.

And a coffee vending counter is in the works or, more accurately, the sale of coffee, specifically organic coffee, is a stipulation of the new lease, placed there by the landlords with the intention of increasing the store’s chances of survival in the age of Amazon.

Village Works is in many ways the antithesis of that e-commerce behemoth. Instead of striving to achieve frictionless efficiency, it tries to nurture relationships. Rather than seeming to operate in a geography of nowhere, it is firmly rooted in place. Instead of privileging the transaction above all else, it tries to foster an experience. Given the contrast, it is ironic that Joseph occasionally feels like his store works for Amazon, serving as its showroom. The discreet signs prohibiting the use of phones at the store are meant to deter the practice of browsing through Village Works’ carefully curated selection only to then purchase the items on Amazon. On an especially poignant instance, a customer took a picture of Store Front NYC, a beautiful collection of pictures of independent stores, many of which have been driven out of business by Amazon, with the intention of purchasing the book on Amazon. Joseph occasionally intervenes, albeit reluctantly, and tries to explain the stakes of their purchasing decisions. There is, he describes, a common misconception: 

You overhear people saying, “It’s like that romantic movie from the 90s where they met in a bookstore!” And they’re having this moment, and you don’t want to ruin it. But you feel like saying, “Cut! No, it’s not that! You’re in an independent store in 2024. You’re here to be part of that if this is the kind of thing you want to have in your environment and for future generations.” And you can’t say that to people, but that’s what you’re feeling. 

To us and to anyone who has visited the store it should seem like an obvious choice. 

For inspiring us to keep the past in mind as a way to imagine a better future for our neighborhood, we are thrilled to name Village Works our March 2024 Business of the Month.

What special small business would you like to see featured next? Just click here to nominate our next one. Thank you! #shoplocalnyc

Here is a map of all our Businesses of the Month:

One response to “Business of the Month: Village Works, 12 St. Mark’s Place

  1. I’ve known Joe Sheridan a long time, we met soon after he arrived in NYC. What he’s created at Village Works is phenomenal and it’s fantastic to see one of the good guys, and he is, a really good natured guy, persevere this many decades later. Village Preservation has selected a most deserving and appropriate business (where the focus is preservation) to celebrate. Congratulations Joe!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *