BY TANISIA MORRIS | In August, Jim Drougas made a deal with an unlikely subtenant.
Drougas, the owner of Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books, began sharing his Carmine St. space — and the rent — with Mike Tunk, an authorized MetroPCS wireless phone dealer. Longtime customers are surprised when they get a glimpse of the new addition, Drougas said.
“They’re like, ‘What’s this phone store doing here? This doesn’t belong here,’ ” said Drougas, who has run the bookstore for 22 years. “We’re barely visible anymore. Our sign is normally covered in leaves above their sign, which is beneath us.”
Between rent increases, and the growth of chain bookstores and e-books, independent bookstore owners in the Village and throughout the city find themselves being forced to close, move or come up with creative solutions to survive. Sharing space, though, isn’t always a comfortable fit.
MetroPCS runs its wireless phone service in a space about the size of a newsstand in the left side of the store’s front, taking up about 30 percent of the 990-square-foot shop. A sea of books surrounds its counter area and phone display.
Tunk, 34, struck the deal with Drougas after losing his shop at 30 Carmine St., a few doors down from the bookstore. He paid $4,000 a month for his old space. He now contributes $2,000 a month toward Drougas’s rent.
Drougas, 62, would not reveal how much he pays for the space, but noted the store has faced a series of downsizings and rent increases over the years, making it difficult for him to meet his bottom line.
Still, Drougas said he doesn’t plan to extend the three-month agreement beyond October because he doesn’t think the two businesses are a good match. Tunk also has experienced some unease with the arrangement.
“At first, [customers] feel like they’ve walked into the wrong place,” Drougas said. “But it’s not a shocker once they recognize what’s happening. It helps.”
Tunk and Drougas both see their businesses as victims of rising retail rents. According to a quarterly report released in July by the global property advisor CBRE Group Inc., New York has the second most expensive retail space, with rents at $2,475 per square foot, a 15.1 percent increase from last year’s report.
“I think back then in the old days, for one thing, New York rents were a lot more reasonable,” Drougas said. “Nowadays, it’s very hard to compete with the Marc Jacobs and the Ralph Laurens who are around the corner, who are encroaching more and more, and can pay ludicrous rents that are never viable for anyone.”
Carolyn Epstein of Bookbook, formerly known as Biography Bookshop, knows all about Marc Jacobs. She was forced to move her 25-year-old bookstore from 400 Bleecker St. to 266 Bleecker St. when rent became too costly. Fashion giant Marc Jacobs opened his own bookshop, Bookmarc, in Epstein’s old space.
While Epstein’s new shop is more affordable, it’s smaller.
“It’s difficult, but we’re managing,” she said.
The East Village’s St. Mark’s Bookshop, which has been around for 35 years, tapped the crowdfunding platform Lucky Ant to help finance its planned move to a more affordable space after months of financial distress. St. Mark’s raised $28,420 in August, surpassing its $23,000 goal. But the bookstore’s future is still in limbo.
“Landlords want three to four months in advance,” said co-owner Terry McCoy. “Rents are awfully high for a bookstore. It’s difficult to pay Manhattan rents these days.”
Inspired by St. Mark’s crowdfunding success, Drougas recently launched a campaign with Lucky Ant to raise $18,000 to save Unoppressive. He’d like to build a new children’s area and expand the store’s inventory.
“We’re just happy to be able to survive as long as we have,” he said. “We’ve had a nice long run. When it ends, it ends. There’s not much else we can do about it except try again, and see where else we can explore it.”