How a West Village Bookshop Preserved Its Legacy Amid COVID-19

Article and Photos by Stacy Kim 

As a child, James Drougas loved books and dreamed of owning  a small bookstore in Long Island, where his family would spend their summers.

“I was always collecting books for myself and even created a lending library thing for my classmates when I was in sixth grade,” said Drougas, now 71.

His dreams came true with a twist almost 30 years ago when he opened Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books on Carmine Street in the West Village — a tribute to the neighborhood’s bohemian roots.

His bookstore has books both new and old, stacked on top of one another on every wall. Outside of the store, customers can see two posters above an area that stocks books.

Carmine Street is home to an eclectic mix of ever-changing businesses; the beloved record store House of Oldies recently closed, while an African cafe called Berber Street Food, which opened in 2018, is  relatively new on the street.

The past nearly two years  since the pandemic started has been particularly challenging for a small business owner like Drougas.

“About a year and a half ago, we were forced to stay closed until this summer. It was so desolate,” Drougas said.  “We haven’t had too many international customers who used to frequently visit us again and again, but they’re coming back now.”

Prior to being able  to reopen the store, Drougas said  he “took a leap of faith” and bought tons of new books to bring into the store. Even when business was slow, Drougas believed it was important to bring in new inventory to keep things fresh.

“I can’t just live on the old stuff. You have to have something new now and again,” Drougas said.“We are not flourishing, but we are at least getting by..”

The bookstore gained a moment of fame when its distinctive outside sign was featured in the romantic comedy film, “Obvious Child,” where the main character, Donna Stern, plays an employee at the store.

The unconventional name of the bookstore immediately caught the attention of audiences.

“Audiences laugh so hard when the sign pops up. Either they know the store or they just chuckle because the name is so great,” director Gillian Robespierre told Off the Grid.

Although many people had told Drougas to change the name in the beginning, he said he was glad he kept the name.

He joked that while people still seek out the store after seeing it in the film, his cat is actually the main star.

Drougas has a two-year-old cat named Alex, who follows him everywhere inside the shop.

“Actually, Alex has really taken over the photo sessions,” Drougas said. “She gets more pictures than our sign, so I’m a little jealous.”

The name of the store itself suggests that the independent bookstore aims to have prices that are lower than other high-profile alternatives.

“We are anti-imperialist. It suggests we are not Amazon. We are not going to take over the world, but we are accessible in terms of price,” Drougas said.

The majority of his books are bargain books. Many of them were purchased from warehouses in Tennessee or Pittsburgh. Bargain books are mostly half the retail price because warehouses purchase books from publishers that have too many copies of a specific book and sell them off at a cheaper price.

Drougas noted that he “never deals with pennies” because sales taxes are included for books. For example, if a book is $5, it will say “$4.59 + tax” on the sticker that is attached to the cover.

The bookstore is a reflection of his personal taste. He cites many of his influences to come from many high-profiled individuals including William Blake, Angela Davis, Laurence Ferlinghetti, Patti Smith, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and Bob Dylan.

Despite the pandemic and many other challenges, the bookstore still enriches the lives of New Yorkers who love books and their cat, Alex. And with the attention it has gained over the years from bookworms, celebrities and tourists, he believes the store has just enough momentum to see this strange time through.

“I cannot pretend that things are perfect because, with the news of the South African variant, everything is unpredictable. But I’m still willing to give it a go. There’s always this magical consequence of squeaking by,” Drougas said.