As one seller says: There are collectors, and then there are the people who don’t know what the hell the collectors are doing.
That’s putting it lightly. At least as The Booksellers—the new documentary from Greenwich Entertainment streaming via virtual theaters—is concerned. The Booksellers is a celebration of the former with an audience of the latter in mind: An introduction to the world of rare and antique books, the market around them, and a dozen players to guide the way.
Directed by D.W. Young and set mainly in New York City, The Booksellers is a bouncy, jazzy affair. The kind that would go best with an espresso or a dry martini, depending on what time of day you watch it. Just make sure to invite the cat when you do. No bookstore is complete without a couple of cats prowling the shelves, and Young’s doc makes sure to pause long enough to spy these feline guardians of the page.
Not that these books need protection. Few artifacts throughout history have been as durable as the book. And, despite the over-publicized death of the printed page, The Bookseller shows that both the abstract contents and the physical materials of books and capable of outlasting empires, let alone marketplace trends. Be it a book buried in the desert for years—where lack of humidity kept the pages from decaying—or books protected and put back together by dedicated and loving sellers. Or buyers, as they may prefer to be called: A glance around their shops suggests that for every book they sell, another dozen arrive to take its place.
It’s that imbalance director Young seems most interested in. In the 1950s, there were 368 bookstores in New York City. Currently, the number has dipped below 80. What do these booksellers make of this downturn? Most shrug, it’s the way of things. Their world may be dying—most of their conventions are populated with elderly buyers and collectors—but that doesn’t mean it will disappear altogether. Bookselling may become niche, but niche has a way of engaging the mainstream in due course.
And where some see finality, others see opportunity. Washington D.C.-based bookseller Rebecca Romney has become a celebrity of sorts for her appearances on the cable show, Pawn Stars, and, as she tells Young, TV has given her field a considerable amount of exposure. Parents of bookish young girls have written letters to Romney, telling her she’s inspired their daughters and opened their eyes to careers they never knew existed.
Other anecdotal evidence points to a resurgence: More kids and young adults are reading physical books than the previous generation. Will this result in a rise in bookstores, both first and second hand? It may not, but that doesn’t mean books will go away. We have more within arm’s reach than we have the time to consume.
In her magnificent non-fiction exploration of the Los Angeles Public Library fire of April 29, 1986, The Library Book, Susan Orlean (interviewed in the doc as well) tries to burn a book for research purposes. To her great surprise, books—composed of paper and cardboard—do not go up in a puff of smoke. They are ornery little bastards who don’t want to burn, that’s not what they are designed to do. They are to be read, treasured, loved, stored and passed on to the next curious reader.
That’s the heart of Young’s doc, though there is little beyond it. The Booksellers is earnest, but it’s also by-the-numbers filmmaking. In another world, it would be a nice Sunday afternoon streamer when you couldn’t decide what else to watch. But, in a world where we cannot visit bookstores, caress spines, and inhale their musty aromas deeply, The Booksellers functions as a viable surrogate.
The Booksellers (2019)
Directed by D.W. Young
Produced by Judith Mizrachy, Dan Wechsler, D.W. Young
Greenwich Entertainment, Not rated, Running time 99 minutes, Streaming