Documentary Review: ‘The Booksellers’

Greetings again from the darkness. One might think that the only thing less interesting than watching someone read a book would be watching them talk about a book they are buying and not intending to read. Director-Editor-Producer DW Young somehow manages to make the topic quite engaging … due in no small part to the stream of bibliophiles and antiquarian booksellers we meet. The philosophy of the film is best expressed through one of the many spot-on quotes sprinkled throughout: “Books are a way of being fully human.”

It’s either cheating or hedging one’s bet when a director secures an interview with the eloquent Fran Lebowitz for a documentary. If the documentary is about books, well that’s even better. She perfectly describes the joy in “crawling around” bookstores in search of just the right one. She recalls the days when bookstores lined 4th Avenue, in what had been labeled “Book Row.” These days, only one remains – The Strand, which was founded in 1929. We learn that in the 1950’s, there were 358 bookstores in New York City, and now your search for a good read is limited to 79. The oldest remaining NYC bookstore is the stunning Argosy on E. 59th, and it’s being operated by the three daughters of Louis Cohen who opened the store in 1925. Ownership of the building is key to the bookstore remaining open for nearly 100 years.

Director Young takes us inside the beautiful and historic Park Avenue Armory for the NYC Antiquarian Book Fair. It’s here where we see a Fidel Castro doll (I guess everything is collectable!), and more importantly get a feel for how the rare book trade works. These collectors are obsessive about their books and compulsive in their mission of the next rare discovery. We see warehouses, apartments, offices, and stores jam packed with books, and to cap it off, we hear from the folks who have made this their passion. Not just bibliophiles like Ms. Lebowitz, Gay Talese, and Susan Orlean, but the boots-on-the-ground booksellers and collectors. There is even a segment on Martin Stone, the legendary book scout or bookrunner, who was also a rock ‘n roll guitarist.

“The internet killed the hunt.” A perfect example is given on how the world wide web changed book selling and collecting. In the old days, a collector could spend years assembling a full collection of Edith Wharton books, whereas today, a credit card and an afternoon on the internet would yield the same results. This is ‘buying’ contrasted with ‘collecting’, and the old school collectors have either adjusted or are struggling. Even auctions have changed, and Bill Gates’ purchasing Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Codex Leicester” via phone … for $28 million … is an example.

Movies about book dealers are discussed, including THE BIG SLEEP and UNFAITHFUL, and we see a clip of Larry McMurtry’s speech championing book reading and bookstores. It should also be noted that Mr. McMurtry is a long time book seller and collector from Archer City, Texas. One of the industry’s new celebrities is the ultra-charming Rebecca Romney, who became famous for her stints on TV’s “Pawn Stars” as the resident book expert. Ms. Romney is leading the new wave of collectors, and her passion as a glass-half-full type is contagious.

Author Maurice Sendak said “There’s so much more to a book than reading.” Here, we learn about the importance of book jackets and special bindings, and how these rare books are actually historical evidence … artifacts of culture. This explains why ‘book burning’ has the history it does as both symbolizing and physically accomplishing the destruction of certain segments of society. We also learn those in this business don’t think highly of Kindle. The words may be the same, but the experience certainly isn’t.

The film is billed as a behind-the-scenes look at the New York rare book world, but it spends more time exploring the folks who make-up this business/industry/lifestyle. Their passion, and one might even call it a fetish, is quite interesting. The argument can be made that their work is quite important in preserving history. Smooth jazz accompanies the story, and it’s only fitting that I learned a new word: Incunabulum, which is an early printed book. These collectors express concern about their legacy, so hopefully the film will spur even more people to understand the historical relevance of books in our cultured society.

Opens in Los Angeles virtual cinema on April 17, and nationally on VOD (Apple/iTunes, Amazon, and cable, satellite and digital platforms) on June 5, 2020

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