2020, NR, 99 min. Directed by D.W. Young.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., April 17, 2020
The greatest pleasure of the bibliophile is not reading, but browsing. It's in being in a book store and rifling through shelves and cabinets and rotating stands. It's the smell, the way a book feels in your hand, how a yellowing page gives a warm glow to text that a new edition, with its crisp white pages, can never duplicate. It's finding a first edition with an uncut page. That's what drives us,
The Booksellers looks not at the buyer, but the vendor. Or rather, as they are portrayed by documentarian D.W. Young, the hands through which these artifacts pass. These are not your standard "five for a buck" paperback resellers (no disrespect to their essential cultural services) but the high-end antiquarian dealers of New York, the kind who make as much money from exclusive book fairs and auction houses as they do from letting customers peruse their endless firetrap shelves, so narrowly constructed that you have to breathe in to pull an early National Geographic out into the aisle. A procession of fascinating, quirky, and uniquely New York figures (including, of course, the inimitable Fran Lebowitz) recount both the history and the industry behind these joyous pursuit, and it's a giddy compendium of interlocking and often contrary takes.
But fascinating as every moment is, there's a nagging question of what The Booksellers is about. The legacy of the old Fourth Street booksellers disappears from view during a lengthy digression about academic collections of author archives. Glenn Horowitz, who has dealt with some of the most rarified archives (Nabokov, Dylan, Marquez, and more), would be a fascinating subject in his own right. He opens the door to inquiry about why we are so fascinated by a writer's process, and why we believe that ephemera like scribbles on cocktail napkins can crack open the mysteries of creativity, but it's never shoved more than a few inches open. Then there are the merits of dust jackets, or the market's mercurial desires when it comes to inscriptions. These are books as historical markers, as a chain to a person or an event (as one dealer puts it so adroitly, the books he seeks, "They look like they've been run over by a truck, but it has to be the right truck.")
Inevitably, the discourse glances off the perils of technology, both as an online store and for its inevitable impact on manuscripts as an time - as The Orchid Thief author Susan Orlean describes it, the perils of the invisible hand of computer editing. There is merit to this discussion. There are very good reasons why the British Parliament, up until 2017, wrote all its laws on velum, a kind of leather paper made from calf skin. Velum lasts centuries, potentially millennia, while your hard drive is usually scrap in a couple of years. That, The Booksellers and indeed the booksellers themselves suggest, is what is really at play here: a book as an item with provenance. It is an item itself, one that often contains multitudinous, disconnected stories.
That's the joy and frustration of The Booksellers. The overall experience is like wandering through an antiquarian book store, picking up a volume, starting to flip through in a leisurely fashion, and then having your arm jostled, losing your place, and picking up another tome. Sometimes it feels like you're picking up where you left off, other times you'll wonder whether it was mis-shelved. That director D.W. Young is an established and respected editor makes this peculiar structure clearly a choice, rather than an accident, but it's rather like finding someone who sorts their books by size or spine color, rather than alphabetical order or by Dewey Decimal Classification. However, there's an abiding breeziness to his view of the fate of the printed word, especially with a wave of new, specialty stores serving particular niches and neighborhoods. The book store may not be the abiding presence it once was, Young suggests, but that just makes the hunt all the more delightful.
The Booksellers is currently available through Greenwich Entertainments' initiative whereby streaming rentals can be bought through virtual ticket booths for local art house cinemas. Choose from: