Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books and its owner, Jim Drougas, have become staples of Carmine Street over the last 31 years. Each person that walks by seems to stop for a moment to take in the colorful shelves, attracted by the unique assortment of books aligned with the store’s name. Often, they linger to watch Drougas’s cat stretch its front paws under a stack of novels before it wanders into the sunlight. Or, most likely, they come to greet Drougas, who knows regulars by name and asks about their families, their recent reads, and invites them to the store’s final celebration on June 26, 2022. It is set to close by the end of June.
“I’m determined to do something, I can’t disappoint all these people,” he says to a neighborhood acquaintance who, as she passes by, asks what is next for the store. They discuss the new attention Drougas has received from the media, telling his incredible story at local film festivals and on local channels. As she leaves, she wishes him good luck and hopes for a future for the store.
For innumerable New Yorkers, the bookstore is another on a list of heartbreaking closures that have occurred recently. Yet this one is especially tough because of its incredible resilience over three decades, despite rent spikes and the pandemic. Drougas is a notable presence on Carmine Street, as he often reclines in his seat or chats with passersby until 10 p.m. on weekdays and even midnight on weekends. Once, he suggested a date between two customers purchasing the same Didion novel.
The bookstore expanded simultaneously with Drougas’s family. His children grew up in the building, and the bookstore extended into their living space. “At first it basically was my wife’s baby,” he recounted, “there was an extraordinary response right from the start.”
“We always have these wonderful, impulsive items that people can’t resist,” Drougas said. The books, typically sold for half of the retail price, are accompanied by notebooks and other assorted goods.
“All day long, from the start, people are intrigued with the name and the impact. There are always enough people who get it ... we have a lot of fun with it,” he said.
The store has also played a prominent role in the community beyond the Village, making Drougas a well-known figure. The Occupy Wall Street Library approached him about using his space in 2011. Later, he approached the campaign of Bernie Sanders, which utilized the store as a Manhattan headquarters in 2016.
Drougas has not given up on the bookstore, even if at a different location. He hopes to store the books in the meantime.
“We’re really hopeful, there’s a wonderful fantasy about a private storefront for sale, but I can’t do that myself,” he said. “I’m hoping that one of the many dozens of some-odd rock stars and movie stars who are huge fans of the store, about as much as I am of them,” might make a “philanthropic investment,” in supporting the bookstore going forward. He also hopes that in doing so, an important gem of Village culture can remain.
“I’m determined to do something, I can’t disappoint all these people,” he added.
He cites the rising prices and the pandemic for the recent closures noticeable all over New York. “There [are] just more dark streets, more empty streets, feeling less safe, fewer things to do... less attractive, really,” Drougas said. “If we’re not here, what is the Village anymore?”
He recalls 31 years ago, when Carmine was a “little sleepy street,” according to him, and Patti Smith, among other New York icons, would visit. Now, selling her books, he reflects on the role of the store.
“The impact that we have on people young and old is just really enheartening, not just the level of response in terms of sheer sales but the enthusiasm,” Drougas explained.
Loss of Cultural Staples
The beloved bookstore’s departure and the other closures of long-standing businesses make uncertain the impact of the pandemic and the loss of cultural staples over time.
“[The Village is] quickly becoming a bit of a playground for rich people, and at the same time, there’s always going to be a thread of bohemian underbelly that’s always going to be here,” said Drougas. “It comes in waves.”
“People get a glimpse, and then they get a real taste [of the Village] when they poke their heads around. I think this bookstore is a huge goal of what that is. It’s a shame if it can’t somehow manifest again,” said Drougas. “Whenever it is, there’s something a little magical about this neighborhood that goes way back ... something that’s a little more reminiscent of the left, of the progressive element.”
Bookstores are an essential part of the culture of the Village, as they “have an eternal life,” according to Drougas. “They’re never going to expire the way other mediums do.”
As Drougas reflected on closing the 34 Carmine Street location, he said, “[I have] a lot of enormous gratitude to the heartfelt responses we’ve had over the years. I’m determined to not get too emotional about the ending of it, because I’m not going to let it end.”
Drougas added, “I don’t know where we’ll land yet, but that’s part of the fun, the mystery.”
The impact that we have on people young and old is just really enheartening, not just the level of response in terms of sheer sales but the enthusiasm.” Jim Drougas of Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books