For several disturbing weeks late last year it looked as if New Haven’s long-running off-beat gathering spot, Never Ending Books, would not live up to its name. It seemed to be ending.
But a small group of young, artistic-minded locals could not bear to see this quirky performance space and bookstore die. They got together, formed a “collective” and called it “Volume Two.”
“Volume One,” although it never went by that name, was an enterprise floating along under the whims of a one-man band named Roger Uihlein — a laid-back bohemian who closely resembles Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. Uihlein got it all started about 35 years ago, although nobody seems to know the exact year. Uihlein, who has never owned a cellphone and doesn’t use email, is tough to reach and doesn’t want to say much about his successors. But when I finally get him on a landline, he praises the collective’s efforts. “It’s a wonderful thing. It’s a win-win-win-win!”
According to those grim news stories from last winter, Uihlein decided to pack it in amid the lingering pandemic when so many other places were shutting down and people weren’t getting out much because they feared public spaces. The owner of the property at 810 State St., in a neighborhood of evolving restaurants and small businesses, gave Uihlein plenty of time to offload thousands of his books. As always, he offered them for free.
The folks of the collective will maintain that policy. A sign on the sidewalk alongside a table of books states: “Want it? Then take it! Come on inside for more free books and good times.” (Who could resist that?)
When you walk inside you see not just shelves stuffed with used books but also bins of used records (the soundtrack to Midnight Cowboy, a little Beethoven, Helen Reddy’s Greatest Hits), Disney films on VHS, cassettes and DVDs. The books range from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test to Robert C. Kennedy’s Life in the Marines as well as cookbooks and non-fiction art and music topics. “We’ve got a little bit of everything for everyone,” says one of the collective’s main drivers, Elena Augusewicz. “And it’s all for free. That was always Roger’s dream, to have a free bookstore.”
But Augusewicz adds, “We ask people to donate what they think an item is worth, whatever they’re grabbing.” After all, despite the collective’s all-volunteer nature, it costs money to keep the lights on and the doors open.
I come across Jim Edwards of New Haven, who is having a fine time perusing the eclectic selection of books. “For months they were closed,” he says. “I yearned to get in. And today it’s open! This feels like a really comfortable place.”
The goal is for Never Ending Books to eventually be nonprofit “so we can sustain this, through memberships and monthly donations,” Augusewicz says. Last February the collective launched a Kickstarter campaign to pay the rent. In less than a month they raised nearly $17,000. That effort is now over because the goal has been far exceeded.
As a half-dozen members of the collective gather on a summer’s Friday night at the little shop, Augusewicz says, “One thing that can make us more sustainable than Roger is we are a team. We can work shifts. It’s not a one-man show anymore. We’re trying to do what Roger did — but with the internet!” (They plan to expand their summertime hours of 5 to 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays.)
The collective’s members all have personal ties to Never Ending Books. “This is a place I’ve been coming to since I was 18,” Augusewicz says. “I came to hear new music, new comedians. When I heard it was closing, it seemed like such a huge loss.”
Jules Bakes, another member of the collective, notes: “It’s harder and harder to engage in a creative activity. The character of New Haven has been changing so much over the last couple of decades. So many small businesses have closed: Cutler’s Records, the York Square Cinema. This city has become much more corporate. We’re pushing against that. We want the spirit of non-Yale New Haven to be nourished.”
Collective member Conor Perreault, a musician, has fond memories of playing on the small stage. “I loved the low barrier of entry: ‘You want to do your little show? You can get on stage here.’ ”
Peter Cunningham, a member of the collective who has done stand-up comedy there, says of commercial club owners: “They don’t want you unless you can guarantee they’ll make money selling enough drinks.” (Never Ending Books doesn’t serve alcohol.)
“Whatever people want to do on that stage,” Augusewicz says, “this is a great place to try something new. If you perform here, it’ll probably be for your friends and family. We just pass the bucket.”
For one of those “open mic” nights in mid-August, nine performers signed up, including several acoustic guitarists, four comedians and a rapper-poet.
At the top of the list: Jonah Jonga, who after hearing his name called, grabs a guitar and sits on a stool in the middle of the stage. “Sorry!” he says as he takes a couple of minutes to tune up. We tell him it’s OK.
He sings quietly, almost inaudibly, despite the microphone. After one earnest song, he’s gone, choosing not to use his allotted 10 minutes. There is polite applause. Well, this is how Bob Dylan got started, right?
Next up: Jisu Sheen, a comedian whose art, in conjunction with Kuli Baro, would remain on display there for a few more days. They produce colorfully painted canvases adorned with poetry. “I’m scared of commitment,” Sheen tells us. “That’s why I can’t chew gum — you put a stick of gum in your mouth and you’re locked in!”
Comedian Nick Grunerud takes a more manic approach. While doing his impression of NBA star LeBron James, he unaccountably wraps a dog collar tightly around his neck, causing several people to call out: “No! Don’t do it!”
Later I ask Augusewicz how people can help the collective find sustainability. She responds: “Come down, check out our books, donate if you can. [They also accept book donations but not textbooks.] Come to our show; book a show. And if you want to do a pop-up storefront for a month, we’re willing to explore it.”