REVIEW: The Booksellers [2020]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 99 minutes
    Release Date: March 6th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: Greenwich Entertainment
    Director(s): D.W. Young

They are a way of being fully human.


One of documentarian D.W. Young‘s subjects makes a great point later on in his film The Booksellers during a section on auctions and how different book collectors are from art collectors. Whereas the latter deal in wealth (they’re buying a one-of-a-kind piece, taking it from the realm of public consumption, and counting it towards their worth as an investment), the former deals in stories. You don’t need to have that specific edition of The Great Gatsby in order to read it, but that’s the edition that provides unique meaning. It can be how it looks, the person it came from, or the damage it took to commemorate a vivid memory you cannot be without. To collect books at this level is to value the object beyond its content.

That’s why books as physically printed material will never truly die. As Kindles takeover the forty-something crowd, young adults in their twenties have begun to bring reading paperbacks back in style. And as accessibility via the internet allows for myriad ways to consume what’s underneath the cover, possessing older books as keepsakes becomes about the compulsion to have what your heart desires. These entities also become historical markers for our cultural aesthetic and technological advancements where it comes to paper, binding, jacket art, and more while weird curios prove more valuable than a novel that’s been reprinted numerous times (regardless of the scarcity of the first) since the conversation surrounding them oftentimes transcends the work itself until the seller is ultimately giving it a new life.

So while The Booksellers doesn’t necessarily give us a definitive history of the profession and its evolution on a purely academic level (some of that shines through anyway), it does provide an entrance to the subject for audiences to dig further by supplying the experts who can explain more. These are men and women of various ages and ethnicities (even if youth and minorities remain grossly out-numbered) who know what happened in the past, experienced the huge learning curve to adjust these past fifteen or so years after the Barnes and Noble and Amazon boon, and look to the future with some optimism. The simple fact that they’re still doing what they’re doing and lugging heavy books to the New York Book Fair every year confirms as much.

That’s not to say it isn’t harder or that the “hunt” still exists when a search engine can tell you a book that would have taken a lifetime to find two generations ago is ready to ship for next day delivery. Everyone on-screen has horror stories and decreasing revenue streams, but they’re also masters of a craft with a wealth of knowledge and experience that shouldn’t just disappear. Since talking amongst themselves won’t pass it down when death becomes equivalent to auctioning off their life’s work piecemeal to whomever has the wherewithal to arrive early, however, a film like this becomes a nice stepping-stone towards putting names with faces and providing those in the dark with the light necessary to pique an as yet unknown interest.

The stories told are equally fascinating and entertaining with each interviewee letting his/her eccentricities and sense of humor shine through. Some are definitely more self-important than others (Jay Walker‘s M.C. Escher-inspired library is gorgeous enough on its own to not need him to constantly be in “sell mode” on how great it and he are), but that’s why a salt of the earth type like David Bergman is the first to be showcased. Whether riding his bicycle with giant books or playing on one of his many softball teams, his authentic approachability contrasts the archetypal bookseller cliché as humorously described by Fran Lebowitz. You don’t need the tweed jacket anymore. Heck, Rebecca Romney advanced the profession’s visibility via “Pawn Stars” of all places. The industry adapted.

Young lets these sellers explain why thanks to memories of when “independent” bookstores were just “bookstores,” but things never get so dire that the whole becomes a eulogy. It’s more a rebirth if anything as we learn about authors donating ephemera to archives, dust jackets becoming more valuable than what they used to protect, and the fickle hierarchy of when an autograph is worth more by proximity. We meander through the changing trends as Young shifts from one interviewee to the next to hear what their motivations, intentions, and hopes are for their careers and the occupation itself. There are too many faces to truly go in-depth on any one subject, but making the film its own cabinet of wonders lends more than enough intrigue to stay invested.

And while the subjects and topics themselves make it that, there’s also what we’re able to find within each frame. Sometimes it’s someone taking a weird book off the shelf and opening it up for us, but other times it’s seeing a tiny framed poster for the movie Secretary hanging on a wall. The randomness of those discoveries is mirrored for better or worse by the film’s construction with numerous odd fades to black and an inconsistent interstitial device wherein some people are given “chapters” with their first names as titles as others are not. Is there a rhyme or reason to this? I don’t know. Caroline Schimmel—who’s present numerous times—doesn’t get the honor despite seeming to deserve it more than others (unless I missed it).

She is included, though, and provides her unique position on collections and legacy right alongside the others. That’s a crucial detail since Young is quick to let Heather O’Donnell explain how this world was 85% male when she started fifteen years ago and remains 85% male today. That’s why the voices of Bibi Mohamed and Kevin Young are invaluable as evidence that you don’t have to be white to understand and have a place within this vocation. Case and point is hip-hop archivist Syreeta Gates‘ brief time on-screen towards the end as an example of where things are heading. The easy way to tell this story might have been to stick to the past and lament about computers destroying the industry, but the truth lies in its evolution.

PS: stay until the end of the credits for one last anecdote from Lebowitz.


photography:
[1] Adam Weinberger examining a bookshelf – THE BOOKSELLERS – Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment
[2] Adina Cohen, Naomi Hample and Judith Lowry of the Argosy Bookstore THE BOOKSELLERS – Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment
[3] Dave Bergman – THE BOOKSELLERS – Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

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