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Why suffer the dehumanizing impersonality of online shopping when you can head down to our January Business of the Month, the Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books (Unoppressive Books), and find within its highly curated selection a book you didn’t know you wanted and that could very well change your life? This Greenwich Village institution offers an impressive and evolving collection of books on music, poetry, politics, travel, film, art, health, philosophy, children’s literature, and more, at bargain prices, as well as the wise counsel of owner Jim Drougas, living embodiment of the spirit of the neighborhood. If that alone does not sway you to visit, read on.
Located on the ground floor of a Renaissance Revival style old-law tenement along charming Carmine street, the small but mighty Unoppressive bookstore has pursued the noble mission of enhancing people’s libraries without breaking the bank for over thirty years. Jim’s history as a purveyor of books, however, goes back much further. By the time Jim was in 6th grade, he was already collecting books and loaning to his friends classics that he still recommends and carries at his store, like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, Orwell’s Animal Farm, and sundry biographies. Jim’s first foray into the business of bookselling came some years later, after college, when he took a bicycle trip from NYC to Illinois State University to visit the William Blake Foundation, and ended up helping distribute several of their titles. At around that time, he launched from his Manhattan Beach home his first bookstore, The Unknown, Obscure Little Bookshop, which sold to very few customers items from Jim’s own collection. That venture was cut short after a couple of years when, in 1975, the publisher of High Times magazine met Jim and asked him to run New Morning, a countercultural bookstore that he wanted to open in SoHo. Jim accepted the offer and ran the shop quite successfully until the publisher passed away, and support by the magazine for the business waned. Jim then built on that experience to start a bargain books export business, International Arbitrage of Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books, which counted among its clients, on an exclusive basis, the legendary mail order German bargain books and music seller Zweitausendeins.
While still operating his export business, Jim considered with his wife the possibility of selling his books directly. For a while, the couple sold their merchandise from a table they set up at a small flea market that operated right outside their building, and they were surprised by the volume of sales. Estimating that two or three days of sales would allow them to cover a month’s rent at a small space, they decided to open a store. In the summer of ‘91, Unoppressive Books launched from the storefront adjacent to their current, larger location.
From the outset, Jim’s approach has remained consistent. He sources from wholesalers across the region overstock books that fit his vision for the store, and he then sells them at deeply discounted prices. The focus on the bargain books allows him, on the one hand, to avoid the unenviable task of competing with big players, which leverage their size to obtain titles more cheaply than smaller stores, and, on the other, to stock and sell multiple copies of popular titles, something he couldn’t easily do if he dealt in used books. Right after he opened his doors, for instance, he was pleasantly shocked to somehow sell hundreds of copies of Gramsci’s Letters from Prison.
When it comes to book selection, Jim’s method relies more on art than on guiding principle. He has an intuitive sense of what his store should stand for and what it should sell, even if he can’t reduce it to a formula, except to say that it is not based on a notion of what would most appeal to the general public or to some ideal customer. He explains:
I don’t feel like I’m catering to an imaginary audience. I’m selling books that I think are important, that I think are, maybe not always fantastic, but always something that I feel has some value.
A review of Unoppressive’s selection (even if this constantly evolves based on availability) gives a good sense of Jim’s priorities. In keeping with the store’s name, for instance, there is no shortage of left-leaning political books. So that if someone wanders in, as often happens, drawn by the name, they typically look around and very quickly exclaim, “this is exactly what I was hoping for.” But Jim’s predilections are also come through in other ways: the generous section on 1960s musicians (especially Bob Dylan) – a section he stuck with until it found an audience; the surprising selection of biographies for children; the number of titles by Willam Balke, Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, and Jiddu Krishnamurti; and even in the beautiful artwork of the editions of classics that he stocks. In truth, the store’s name, Jim himself concedes, has gradually gone from describing the political orientation of its merchandise – as it did during the export days – to capturing something fundamental about how Jim runs his business. It is unoppressive in that it is easy on people’s pockets; and it is non-imperialist in that, unlike other operations out there, it has no desire to take over the world.
Despite the store’s small footprint and aversion to conquering bigger spaces, it has served over the years as a vital cultural and events space. On a personal level, it has operated as a venue for numerous celebrations. Jim has hosted there birthday parties for his children, who essentially grew up at the store, as well as for friends, staff, and himself. These gatherings would often turn into semi-public affairs as customers joined in the celebration. In addition to these parties, Jim has organized at the store jazz concerts, regular comedy shows, and record release parties, as well as a wide variety of events that have corresponded with the Unoppressive Books’ wares and Jim’s general interests. At one, for instance, contributors to the collection Dreaming Dreams of Dylan performed for guests their dreams of the one-time Village troubadour. At another, a few dozen Yippies of a certain age – among them, via live-stream, former editor of the Realist magazine and co-founder of the Youth International Party Paul Krassner– gathered at Unoppressive to reminisce about the life of Jerry Rubin, the subject of the recent biography “Did It!”.
COVID, unfortunately, put an end to most of these events, and more generally posed an existential threat to the business. For many months after the store was allowed to reopen, the lack of foot traffic made opening almost beside the point. According to Jim, however, the Unoppressive has had two big factors working in its favor. The first is the nature of the business. As Jim describes it, “the good thing about being a bookstore is that I can run it on my own. It’s a lot of hours. but thankfully I enjoy it”. The second is the bookstore’s loyal customers, some of whom have been patronizing the place for decades, occasionally even after moving out of the city. Not infrequently, an old customer pops in after many years. “I get that often ” Jim explains, “‘I can’t’ believe this bookstore is still here’ and I just say ‘Yeah! Me neither!”.
Although business has partially recovered in recent months, it hasn’t to the extent that landlords seem to assume. Real estate pressure had been having a devastating effect on the small businesses community in the area even before the pandemic. Over the years, Unoppressive has enjoyed synergies with numerous neighboring establishments, such as Film Forum, House of Oldies, Evergreen Video, Bookbook, Carmine Street Guitar, and Gray Dog Café. Most of those are now gone, and Unoppressive Books itself is struggling to secure a new lease at its longtime home. The possibility of Jim’s departure has inspired various noteworthy efforts to call attention to his plight and to the business’ importance to the cultural ecology of the Village. This past October, right outside the bookstore’s doors, Alexandra Zelman-Doring directed a performance created by Amanda Millet-Sorsa that addressed the threats to Jim’s store through William Blake’s The Auguries of Innocence. More recently, Beatriz Browne and Cyrus Stowe released “34 Carmine St”, a wonderful documentary that celebrates Jim and his bookstore’s role in the cultural life of the neighborhood.
To the fine projects above, we would like to add our own recognition of Jim’s accomplishments and of Unoppressive Book’s unique contributions. Jim himself captured those aptly when asked why he had operated his store for so long: “… seeing people’s faces light up over the books that I have to offer them… the relationship with customers… I enjoy seeing people relate to things that are important to me, whether it’s literature or politics or philosophy. I feel that we’ve had an impact.”
In recognition of that impact, we are thrilled to name Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books our January 2022 Business of the Month.
Stop by at 34 Carmine Street or visit their website.
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: