First Impressions

At first glance, UN-IBB is a comic store. But it’s not arranged according to the D.C. and Marvel universes—the genres on offer are indie, vintage horror, and anti-establishment. Amy, a Midwestern-looking woman who distributes civil service exams and has loud phone conversations in the store’s Maoist corner, directs us to the owner. She directs us through the narrow, hop-along aisles to a closed door in the back of the store.

The door edges open, and James leans out of the Standing Rock meeting hall in the store’s back room, submerged from the waist down in a dark cellar. From his sunken position, he looks like a half-height Lestat.

Allison hands him down books and baskets in exchange for an interview. Our first interaction shows the hand to hand, ebb and flow model for the exchange of ideas in James’s store. James practices what he preaches, as is evident from the appliquéd state of his cash register.



Twenty-six years ago the entire storefront was Bargain Books, and it was located one door down in what is now a Buddhist gift shop. At one time Bargain Books had the whole ground floor, but over time they “shrunk to one little corner, and that’s okay. People come by and say oh my god, you’re still here. We’re not an all-purpose bookstore, we’re just here to find the best of a particular branch of books, whether they’re political or literary or whatever.”

James has always been into books—it’s his passion. “I had a little bookstore in Manhattan Beach when I was young and restless. And previous to that I raided bookstores all over the city.” Very early, when James was maybe ten or twelve, he found a little used bookstore on Long Island run by a grouchy old guy. “It was such a treasure trove, tucked away, with comic books and things. Even then I thought: I wanna do this, I wanna be that grouchy guy.”

“It was such a treasure trove, tucked away, with comic books and things. Even then I thought: I wanna do this, I wanna be that grouchy guy.” James

But before starting up the storefront, James was involved in wholesale. His business card read “International Arbitrage of Unoppressive Non-Imperialistic Books.” He had several major clients in Germany, Holland, and England who would buy container loads of books, thirty palates every month or so. James would find books like the ones in his store today, but not just twenty or thirty copies—five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand of a title at special, closeout-type prices. “Ideas like this—” James indicates his Blake shelves, “work better over there than they do here at this stage. Some of the biggest things we ever had were Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. I sold about 80,000 of those, there were that many left over. Bob Dylan’s scrap book, I did 10,000 of that in one go. A lot of the people in the bargain book industry—which is a whole segment of the book industry and a very important one in a lot of ways—were always jealous of these exclusive clients. These clients I had were very devoted to me, especially the Germans. Huge, very alternative, very unoppressive, non-imperialistic people themselves. That all fell to pieces in the 2008 time frame where everything was falling apart. We get by, sure, but it’s not as lucrative.”

When she was nine, James’s daughter came to him and asked for the business when he died. He said sure, but she had a caveat: she wanted the wholesale business. “You can give the bookstore to my little brother,” she said. Even at nine, she knew where the money was.

James initially transitioned into the storefront portion of the business in 1991 when his wife wanted to put down roots. The couple had traveled to book shows in London and Frankfurt over several times a year before the storefront opened, and his wife eventually wanted a static job. James’s rationale? “Well, why work for some other schmuck? Why don’t we open our own bookstore?”


How They Operate 

When they first opened they were in a tiny space and paid a thousand dollars a month in rent. James and his wife sold books at a table in front of their building at a little red school house and made enough money on weekends to pay the rent. Although wholesale was his specialty, it wasn’t James’s first venture into storefronts. Back in the seventies he created and ran a bookstore for High Time Magazine on Spring Street. Back then an exodus (in large part due to the AIDS epidemic) led to temporarily cheap housing. Artists and erudites, enchanted with the idea of low rents that would prevent them from succumbing to “the man,” flooded the area until the majority of the residents were highly educated folks who prefer thinking outside the box in political and artistic ventures. “SoHo was coming of age then. It was mostly still factories with two, three, a few art galleries on the ground floor, mostly tucked away here and there. I don’t mean Andy Warhol’s factories. I mean real factories. And that was fun for a while.”

Today, James says the fun part about bargain books is getting the good ones before the other guy. At 8:45 every night, James and other bookstore owners log onto a website that uploads all of their books. There’s only twenty of that,

and three of that, and sixteen of that, and the reason they can be sold so cheaply is not because people don’t want them—they got returned from Barnes & Noble and the publishers can’t be bothered to stick twenty-three copies back into stock. The books are put into a container with big bins and sent off to Tennessee, where they then get sorted and uploaded. “If I’m not pushing an order through by 8:49, the best ones are gone. It’s easy to sell good books. I don’t want to taint the store, not only with used worn books, but also books that are just unlikely to find customers here. People come here thinking pretty much anything they pick up is going to be worthwhile.”



When young people walk by, they say, “Oh, Communist bookstore,” and call James “Karl Marx.” Personally, he won’t sell Ayn Rand. It’s not censorship, James assures us. “I won’t sell books that I find offensive or imperialist because not only do I not want to taint the store, I don’t want you guys to read Ayn Rand and say, ‘wow, that’s interesting,’ because she’s not. She’s an asshole. People are too easily impressed by people like her. I mean it’s my goddamned bookstore—why would I even do this if I can’t have two shelves devoted to William Blake? I don’t care if people don’t get him right away. I have thirty-five Bob Dylan books at any given moment.”

" I don’t want you guys to read Ayn Rand and say, ‘wow, that’s interesting,’ because she’s not. She’s an asshole. People are too easily impressed by people like her." James

If the content and customer base of Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books is any indicator, this is an area that breeds leftwing sentiments. Customers spend their time reading philosophy books, debating politics, and campaigning for their opinions in the shop. Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books provides a place for a group of people to collect new material from opinion leaders – to read up on a particular school of philosophy or explore an anarchist niche. Here, customers can develop worldly opinions about radical movements—from Kibbutzim to communist China—in an affluent setting in the Village that is insulated from these practices.

The store is an important place for “ists.” Jenny Slate’s character in Obvious Child (2014) works in the bookstore and plays opposite an actor who portrays James as he tells his employee the bookstore is shutting down. Based on a real conversation James had with a former employee, the filmmaker’s roommate, the scene hits close to home.


The Rent Struggle 

Three businesses thrive on the shared space. Though their ideologies span from Maoist to 7th wave feminist to anarchist, they try to be inclusive of all other “ists” (though they look down on “isms”). Prominent, cheap copies of inoffensive books—Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit—seem like they could revolutionize a generation given the reverent way they’re displayed here.

Until the new businesses were signed in, James didn’t know if UN-IBB would be able to stay. “Around that time I started thinking I couldn’t afford staff anymore. So I figured I’d just work fifteen, eighteen hours a day until I get so sick of it I won’t mind when they shut us down. But I never got tired of it. I’m still here.

“I think rent is the biggest struggle for everyone, and they’re lying if they say otherwise. The rents that are out there have nothing to do with reality.

“The biggest, most successful restaurants are shutting down because it just makes no sense to them. I’m thinking maybe in years to come I’ll try to get a book mobile. I haven’t seen many around here, just some cute antiques online. I mean there are trucks selling food, and I don’t know how successful that is. Maybe if I have to I’ll sell some tea and books to make it fit, or something weird. Because the name is still really popular. Even people who’ve never heard of us walk by and every day they go, ‘Look at that! Unoppressive!’ It happens every single day and there are thousands of pictures of my sign because it intrigues people.

“It has a very deep and large meaning, a little bit of tongue-in-cheek. We’re unoppressively cheap. It’s not too common. If you try to write ‘unoppressive’ in your phone it’ll come up ‘unimpressive’ because it’s just not a common word. One guy who wrote a book about stores loved the name so much he was going to name his child ‘Unoppressive Non-Imperialistic Books.’ And Non-Imperialistic isn’t really saying anti-Imperialistic, though we are. We’re not Barnes & Noble, we’re not Amazon, we’re just a humble little bookstore. We’re not trying to take over the world.”


Changes in Industry

But books of the 21st Century are entering the world in new ways. When Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books came onto the scene in the 1990s, if someone mentioned a “nook” they were talking about a corner, and the world “kindle” in conversation would get you a funny look and a rapid excuse. But looming threats to Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books don’t come from ebooks—over 80% of people prefer to read a physical copy when reading for pleasure for every type of literature except newspapers, citing everything from wanting to annotate margins to eyestrain (Baron 213). Rather, they come from rapidly changing print technology.

The printing industry has changed very little since Richard Hoe modified the design of a steam-powered press to print millions of pages a day (Wright 60). But in 2008 the number of titles available to be printed on demand doubled to 285,394 (Wright 62). Print-on-demand technology is a godsend for publishers, who can print small batches of books at a time to minimize risk and overstock—but that same overstock, usually sold at a loss to the publisher, is what keeps the shelves of Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books filled and cheap.

On the bright side, increased variety of texts floods the market, and consumers are ever more dependent on real people to help them apply precision to a surplus of irrelevant information (Wright 62). Someday soon metadata will catch up and change this (“Discoverability, The New King of Publishing”), and leave independent bookstores like Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books with the single advantage technology can’t replicate. The fact that the store is operated by real people incapable of utopian reach is its hypothetical downfall but its primary selling point over rapidly evolving reading technologies. Store owners are “deeply engaged in the community” and are stepping up to their role as Third Places (“Despite Increased Competition, Independent Bookstores Thrive in US”).


Beyond the Books, Third Place and Community

When we searched Google for articles about Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain books, we were excited to see three pages filled with articles, most published by The Villager, a local Greenwich Village paper. Most articles indirectly involved the store, and were focused on quotes from the owner, James Drougas, and his role in a politically liberal community (it is difficult to separate the store’s left content from the politically uniform arena it distributes within in). James voices his opinions on occurrences in the neighborhood, like development projects that will increase the rent of certain buildings. His quotes range from announcing the death of a local 102 1/2-year-old communist to a situation where a reporter called someone for an interview about how a piece of news was leaked. When the reporter “asked him how the Post got onto the Weehawken house story, his friend Jim Drougas, […] who happened to be visiting him, piped up that it was him” (“Scoopy’s Notebook, Week of Feb. 16, 2017″) (“Scoopy’s Notebook, Week of Dec. 29, 2016”).

Jim uses the shop as a means to rely his political opinions. The store is specifically critical because it is in Greenwich Village, an area inhabited by many impressionable college students. In the years that Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books has been in the area, the percentage of people between 18 and 34 has increased while the percentage of people between 35 and 64 has decreased. The below map shows to the west (the area around Carmine Street) what appears to be millennial spillover from the NYU/Washington Square Park area. Maybe the student population at NYU has increased since 1990, or maybe the students spread out naturally, looking for likeminded intellectuals.

Comparison of Select Age Demographics between 1990 and 2015, by Census Tract

This April, the shop was featured in a New York Times article that highlighted their involvement in recent political movements. Jim gives us the lowdown on John, the store’s current principle owner and a graduate of Bard, who is “ultra picky about anything and everything with gender, but was never that political until Bernie came along.” What is now a Standing Rock display was an unofficial Bernie headquarter last primary season. There were tables outside, and hundreds of people came to collect stickers, files, and folders to bring around.


Within the Plot of Land

Most of the people who flock to Unoppressive Non-Imerpialist Bargain Books aren’t from the immediate area, which has become increasing homogenous over the years.

The community a quarter mile around Carmine Street in the West Village might as well be a golf club. The neighborhood reflects a New York that expired sometime in the early 20th century: with 87% of the community identifying as white, its racial composition is closer to a shade of house paint than a modern demographic.

But despite a diversity dearth, the neighborhood is still wealthy in the traditional sense—nearly a quarter of the people in the area make $200,000 or more. The area, once a patchwork of income frequencies, is now much more homogenous and much more likely to host households with an annual income of more than $100,000.

Racial Makeup by Percent in a .25 Mile Radius around 34 Carmine Street, 2015

Household Income by Percent in a .25 Mile Radius around 34 Carmine Street, 2015


Comparison of Income Greater than $100,000 between 1990 and 2015, by Census Tract

Six figure incomes are practically a necessity in the neighborhood. Although the West Village has plenty of charm with its bricks and coffee bean cafes, it only comes up to midtown’s knees. The lower the buildings the higher the demand—which is reflected in the real estate prices. The gross rent is $2,000 a month or more for 56.8% of the housing units. Nearly half of all residents are willing to fork out between 10 to 29% of their paycheck each month just to live in the area.

Gross Rent by Percent in a .25 Mile Radius around 34 Carmine Street, 2015

Gross Rent as a Percentage of Household Income in a .25 Mile Radius around 34 Carmine Street, 2015

The largest exception to the way the area’s homogeneity clashes with UN-IBB is the vibrant gay community in the West Village. Since the gay community tends to hold liberal opinions in politics and supports free thinkers, members are attracted to Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books. The store is a physical manifestation of an ideology that emphasizes the importance of individuality and freedom of expression.

“Our community is much larger than our immediate community, never mind the whole world. It's a question about the whole world, and how it leads to the city.” James

Still, with chain couture stores encroaching on adjacent Bleeker street, it’s easy to wonder why a community that can afford to pay full-price needs bargain books.

Jim has the answer. He estimates that only about twenty percent of the people who come into the store are from the immediate area. “Our community is much larger than our immediate community, never mind the whole world. It’s a question about the whole world, and how it leads to the city.”


To Hear Full Clips Of Our Interviews

Bibliography for Bibliophiles

Works Cited

BARON, NAOMI S. “Reading in Print or Onscreen: Better, Worse, or About the Same?” Discourse 2.0: Language and New Media, edited by Deborah Tannen and Anna Marie Trester, Georgetown University Press, 2013, pp. 201–224,

BREINHOLST, ANDERS. “Why Discoverability Should Be Publishers’ Biggest Priority – DBW.”Digital Book World. DBW, 22 Dec. 2016. Web. 22 Apr. 2017. <>.

SCOOPY. “Scoopy’s Notebook, Week of Feb. 16, 2017.” Serving West and East Village, Chelsea, SoHo, Hudson Square, NoHo, Little Italy, Chinatown and the Lower East Side. NYC COMMUNITY MEDIA, 15 Feb. 2017. Web. 22 Apr. 2017. <>.

SCOOPY. “Scoopy’s Notebook, Week of Dec. 29, 2016.” Serving West and East Village, Chelsea, SoHo, Hudson Square, NoHo, Little Italy, Chinatown and the Lower East Side. NYC COMMUNITY MEDIA, 29 Dec. 2016. Web. 22 Apr. 2017. <>.

TABOH, JULIE. “Despite Increased Competition, Independent Bookstores Thrive in US.”VOA News. 18 Feb. 2014. Web. 22 Apr. 2017. <>.

WRIGHT, ALEX. “The Battle of the Books.” The Wilson Quarterly (1976-), vol. 33, no. 4, 2009, pp. 59–64.,

***All photography by Allison Reich and Jadyn Marshall

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