The Unconventional, Extra-Ordinary Village Bookstore That Movie Directors Can’t Resist

Obvious Child_Box Shot_photo credit Chris Teague

In a scene from “Obvious Child,” Donna gets a visit at the bookstore as the books (and herself) are being packed in boxes. Photo by Chris Teague.

One of the most reliable laugh lines from the hilarious current movie Obvious Child doesn’t come from the mouth of stand-up comedians Donna (played by Jenny Slate) or Joey (Gabe Liedman). It’s when the awning of the bookstore where Donna works flashes across the screen, reading: UNOPPRESSIVE NON-IMPERIALIST BARGAIN BOOKS.

“Audiences laugh so hard when the sign pops up. Either they know the store or they just chuckle because the name is so great. I’ve never been in a screening when the awning to the shop doesn’t get a laugh,” director Gillian Robespierre tells Off the Grid.

For most Villagers, it’s a laugh of recognition and appreciation for this independent (to say the least) business at 34 Carmine Street, one of the winners of GVSHP’s annual Village Awards this past June. UNBB has been selling books there for nearly 20 years, with a selection as individualistic as its owners, Jim and Indiana Drougas. The film is now playing just a stroll away at the Angelika, where audiences are eager to see what’s been called “the first romantic comedy about abortion.” Set mostly in Williamsburg, it follows Donna’s struggles in life, art and romance with a winning mix of honesty and raunchiness.

Donna does stand-up at night and works at Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books during the day – until the owner tells her the store is closing, leaving Donna crushed. “The narrative in the movie of the store shutting down was very much a deliberate comment on the struggles that independent businesses face, especially in New York City with rents being astronomical, as well as the general decline in actual books being sold and the advancement into the digital age,” Robespierre wrote us in an e-mail. “I grew up in New York City in the ’80s and ’90s when the city was only mom-and-pop stores. Starbucks didn’t rule the streets and banks were not on every corner. We always wanted Donna to work in a small bookshop where the environment felt very familial (that’s very much the vibe of Jim’s shop).”

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Jim Drougas speaks at the 2014 Village Awards in June. Photo by Bob Estremera.

The movie narrative is not so far from the truth, as the UNBB’s lease has not always been secure. “We were always under the gun with the landlord,” Drougas said, but bringing in Carmine Street Comics about a year ago has helped finances.

As it turns out, the interior bookshop scenes were actually shot in a Bushwick store called Human Relations – the real UNBB only appears in exterior shots. Robespierre knew the Village stalwart intimately through her good friend Margaret. “We were roommates way back in the mid-2000s. We were fresh out of college and did a lot of sitting around the apartment drinking wine, talking about life, love, and the bookstore! She had some incredible stories. I was looking for a shop that had the same aesthetic as Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books. Margaret introduced me to Jim and the rest is history.”

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Director Gillian Robespierre. Photo by Catalina Kulczar.

Drougas is getting used to filming requests. Just this past year, he’s received three more – though one is from his daughter, who’s studying film at Sarah Lawrence and wants her father to play a parody of himself. The shop also appeared in an episode of the Comedy Central series “Inside Amy Schumer.”

A feisty lefty, Drougas doesn’t carry books by Ayn Rand, much less Newt Gingrich. He calls himself “a Groucho Marxist or John Lennonist.” In fact, it was Yippie Paul Krassner who got Drougas started with memorable shop names. Drougas named his former Brooklyn bookstore the Unknown Obscure Little Bookshop after Krassner asked him: Well, how would you describe your shop? He followed the descriptive formula again for his Village store.

“The name is always striking enough that people get curious – if they can even remember it,” he said.

 

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Karen Loew

Karen Loew is the Director of East Village and Special Projects at GVSHP.