Jim Drougas has been selling cheap books on Carmine St. for so long that the Krazy Kat collections my 10-year-old daughter falls asleep to are the ones I bought there when I was maybe five years older than her now.
Unoppressive, Non-Imperialist Bargain Books is the only bookstore around – and there aren’t many yet – with separate sections for William Blake and Bob Dylan, not to mention shelves of cartoon collections ranging from R. Crumb at Scrooge McDuck, with everything going for a fraction of its selling price.
It’s an eighth of a mile of books, Jim likes to say, riffing on the Strand’s famous “18 miles of books,” all carefully chosen so that browsing the store feels a bit like taking a mind tour.
“There is never too much money, there is always just enough,” he said in “34 Carmine Street”, a terrific short documentary from 2021 about Jim and his shop and the last bohemian businesses in the village hanging on and earning the rent.
After running a bookstore in town for High Times founder and wholesale pot smuggler Tom Forçade in the 1980s, Jim opened Unoppressive Books in 1991, with rent around $1,000.
There was a large section of civil service exam prep books for a while, from another vendor who rented shelves for guides to help you pass a test that could determine the course of your life. A book on the NYPD Sergeant’s Examination would be opposite a volume of “Jerusalem: Emanation of Giant Albion” written and hand-drawn by Blake – the original graphic novel? – with his famous exhortation on how “I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man”.
After the stock market crash of 2008, Jim brought in a comic book store as a subtenant sharing the space until the comic book store stopped paying rent, then a psychic with a glorious sign at the neon in one of its windows.
But the psychic didn’t see the pandemic coming, and now it’s just Jim — whose store also briefly housed the Occupy Wall Street library — against a new owner who bought the building last year, has already gutted upstairs tenants and wants $10,500 commercial rent plus rent arrears from the pandemic, and no subtenants, or else to have non-oppressive books by the end of the month .
The last time Jim’s lease ended, just after Occupy, the then landlord wanted a three-month down payment on a new, more expensive lease, so Jim asked his friends Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly if they knew someone who wanted to buy some original R. Crumb artwork that he had. They presented him with the money instead.
“It was extraordinarily generous,” says Jim. “I managed to hold on once again. I finally sold Crumb’s art to pay for my daughter’s college.
This lease ended last September, months after the sale of the building. “We tried to negotiate a new lease all last year, but in the end all they gave us was a break to allow us to stay until June.”
This news fell a few weeks ago, from a blogger specializing in grieving a lost New York, and since then it’s been busy with people coming to tell Jim great stories about himself. and on Unoppressive Books, and usually come away with a few more of these 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 Jean-Baptiste Scalabrini, the unofficial patron saint of New York immigrants, Reverend Billy and his Stop Shopping Choir canonized Jim the Bookseller of 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 an eerie memorial service – one where “the deceased” is alive and well and not ready to move on from his days as a bookseller.
Instead, Jim tries to find a well-to-do, civic-minded celebrity or book lover or maybe a Scrooge McDuck guy willing to pay a paltry sum to be seen as such to help him create a new location for Unoppressive Books, conveniently in the Village.
“The math isn’t there,” says Jim. “It’s not for a real estate investor. I don’t mean it’s exactly charity, but it’s for someone who would be happy not to lose money owning a property.
If you’re such a New Yorker, or just want to hit up one of the few remaining bookstores worth checking out, head to 34 Carmine St. anytime between 11 a.m. and (at least) 10 p.m. , before it is too late.
There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the right people and places after they’re gone or after you’ve decided to call it quits. But it’s better to appreciate them while they’re here and help keep them here.