Jim Drougas has been selling bargain books on Carmine St. for so long that the Krazy Kat collections my 10-year-old daughter falls asleep reading are the ones I bought there when I was maybe five years older than she is now.
Unoppressive, Non-Imperialist Bargain Books is the only bookstore around — and there aren’t so many still around — with separate sections for William Blake and Bob Dylan, not to mention shelves of cartoon collections ranging from R. Crumb to Scrooge McDuck, with everything going for a fraction of its cover price.
It’s one-eighth of a thousand books, Jim likes to say, riffing on the Strand’s famous “18 miles of books,” with all of them carefully chosen so that going through the store feels a little like taking a tour of his mind.
“There’s never too much money, there’s always just enough,” he said in “34 Carmine St.,” a terrific short documentary from 2021 about Jim and his store and the Village’s last bohemian businesses somehow hanging on and eking out the rent.
After running a bookstore in the city for High Times founder and wholesale pot smuggler Tom Forçade in the 1980s, Jim opened Unoppressive Books in 1991, with a rent of about $1,000.
There was a big section of civil service examination preparation books for a while, from another seller who rented shelf space for the guides to help you pass a test that could determine the course of your life. A book about the NYPD’s sergeant’s exam would be across from a volume of Blake’s hand-written and hand-drawn “Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion” — the original graphic novel? — with its famous exhortation about how “I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Mans.”
After the market crash in 2008, Jim brought in a comic book shop as a subtenant sharing the space until the comic book shop stopped making the rent, and then a psychic with a glorious neon sign in one of his windows.
But the psychic didn’t see the pandemic coming, and now it’s just Jim — whose store also briefly hosted the Occupy Wall Street library — up against a new landlord who bought the building last year, has already cleared out the upstairs tenants and wants a commercial rent of $10,500 along with back rent from the pandemic, and no subtenants, or else to have Unoppressive Books out by the end of the month.
The last time Jim’s lease was up, just after Occupy, the landlord at the time wanted a three-month deposit on a new, more expensive lease, so Jim asked his friends Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly if they knew anyone who wanted to buy some original R. Crumb artwork he had. They fronted him the money instead.
“That was extraordinarily generous,” Jim says. “I managed to hang on one more time. I eventually sold the Crumb art to pay for my daughter’s college.”
That lease ended last September, months after the building was sold. “We tried to negotiate a new lease all of last year, but at the end of the day all they would give us was a break in letting us stay through June.”
That news broke a couple of weeks ago, from a blogger who specializes in mourning a lost New York, and it’s been busy ever since with people coming in to tell Jim fond stories about himself and Unoppressive Books, and usually leave with a few more of those books.
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While Our Lady of Pompeii across the street at 25 Carmine St. anticipates the canonization by Pope Francis of Bishop John Baptist Scalabrini, the unofficial patron saint of New York’s immigrants, Rev. Billy and His Stop Shopping Choir canonized Jim the bookseller at the New Earth Church on E. 5th St. in Alphabet City last week. It was exhilarating, Jim said.
But visiting the store now feels a bit like a weird memorial service — one where “the deceased” is alive and well and not ready to turn the page on his bookselling days.
Instead, Jim is trying to find a celebrity or a well-off and civic-minded book-lover or maybe a Scrooge McDuck type willing to pay a relative pittance to be seen as one to help him set up a new location for Unoppressive Books, ideally in the Village.
“The math is not there,” Jim says. “This isn’t for a real-estate investor. Not to suggest it’s charity exactly, but it’s for someone who’d be happy not to lose any money while owning a property.”
If you happen to be such a New Yorker, or if you just want to go to one of the few remaining bookstores worth the visit, get yourself to 34 Carmine St. any time between 11 am and (at least) 10 pm, before it’s too late.
There’s nothing wrong with celebrating good people and places after they’re gone or have decided to call it a day. But it’s much better to appreciate them while they’re here, and to help keep them here.