The Way of The Dude abides at Lebowski temple of merch

Tucked away in a small storefront not far from Washington Square Park is a store whose owner greets customers while dressed in a bathrobe, slippers and a wolf’s hat. He isn’t hung over, just mirroring the cult film character his shop is dedicated to — Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski.

The Little Lebowski Store, at 215 Thompson St., is just one of many shrines, physical and spiritual, raised in the name of the 1998 Coen Brothers movie, “The Big Lebowski.” The film stars Jeff Bridges as The Dude; John Goodman as his gun-toting friend Walter, who “doesn’t roll on Shabbos”; and Steve Buscemi completing the trio as the meek Donny, constantly being told to “Shut the f— up.”

There are hundreds of “The Big Lebowski” fan conventions held in bars and bowling alleys (The Dude’s preferred hangout) globally, including one of the largest, the annual Lebowski Fest, first held in Louisville in 2002. What started out as a bowling party of 150 fans quickly grew into an annual pilgrimage for cinephiles from across the world, with fests being held in New York, Las Vegas, San Francisco and even Edinburgh and London.

For the more spiritual devotees there is the Church of the Latter Day Dude, which advocates the religion of Dudeism. The church’s Web site describes the religion as follows: “Kick back with some friends and some oat soda and whether you roll strikes or gutters, do your best to be true to yourself and others — that is to say, abide.” If you’re so inclined, you can even get ordained as a Dudeist minister and join the already initiated 150,000 brothers.

“I’ve learned to let my inner Dude hang out,” said Roy Preston, 40, describing his life’s mantra after his experience over the last five years. With his Buddha-like smile and come-what-may aura, he seems to be the embodiment of everything Lebowski. But this wasn’t always the case.

Five years ago, Preston and his business partner opened a children’s bookstore at the current site.

“I wanted to be a tight-ass in a suit selling kids’ books to yuppie parents,” he said. But fate had other ideas.

The recession hit soon after the store opened, and Washington Square Park, a block north, was closed for renovation, reducing area foot traffic to practically nothing. After sinking into debt, the partners decided to try running a souvenir store and a comic book store, both of which failed miserably.

Preston lost his house in Red Bank, N.J., and was living in the back of the store, with a few comic books bought from the Forbidden Planet shop to fill up his shelves for company. After receiving an eviction notice from the store landlord, he said, “If we’re going to get evicted we might as well go out having fun.” And so he filled his store with pop culture memorabilia, including “The Big Lebowski” T-shirts, which turned out to be the best sellers.

That’s when his partner and he decided to dedicate the shop solely to the movie. He put a cutout of The Dude outside the store, created a bowling lane in the changing room and started wearing his robes and slippers to work every day.

After he ensured that the store had its fair share of rugs (the root cause of all The Dude’s troubles in the movie), all that was missing was White Russians, The Dude’s poison of choice, which Preston, after much experimentation, learned reduced his alertness. Instead he tried to complete the Lebowski experience by covering the walls with quotes from the movie (“That rug really tied the room together”), and even framing a letter left on his front door by a drunk patron who thought this was “seriously the greatest idea for a store I have ever come upon.”

And it works. At first, customers walk into the store with puzzled looks, curious about the owner’s attire. But a few minutes later they start to nod knowingly and smile. Preston loves it because everyone who visits the store is in a good mood.

“It’s just like hosting a party,” he said. “All I have to do is smile and be nice.”

Even the way the store gained its fame is a coincidence. One night two men who had just finished interviewing John Goodman for a PBS special on Jeff Bridges happened to walk by the place and decided to come in. Two months later, Preston got a call from PBS asking him to be part of the special. On the day of the filming, Bridges showed up with the recording team, and once the special aired on Jan. 8, 2011, fans flocked to the shop.

In his Lebowski shrine, surrounded by still-frame photos and T-shirts from the movie, Preston seems content in his bathrobe and slippers.

“It was a series of random circumstances where terrible things led to good things — kind of like the movie,” he said. “The Dude was happy and content even when s— kept being thrown at him. That’s a good way to live.”

Just then, a customer walked in with the customary “Hey Dude!” greeting. “Do you have any Donny T-shirts? My brother-in-law’s name is Donny and he just never shuts the f— up!”

Published in The Villager – March, 2013