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With: Dave Bergman, Adina Cohen, Naomi Hample, Judith Lowry, Jim Cummins, Arthur Fournier, Stephen Massey, Bibi Mohamed, Heather O'Donnell, Rebecca Romney, Justin Schiller, Adam Weinberger, Henry Wessells, Syreeta Gates, Glenn Horowitz, Erik DuRon, Jess Kuronen, Fran Lebowitz , Tom Lecky, Nicholas D. Lowry, Ed Maggs, Susan Orlean, William Reese, Caroline Schimmel, Sunday Steinkirchner, Gay Talese, Jay Walker, Rob Warren, Nancy Bass Wyden, Kevin Young, Lizzy Young, Michael Zinman, Parker Posey (narrator)
Written by: n/a
Directed by: D.W. Young
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 99
Date: 04/17/2020

The Booksellers (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Cover Me

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I wish that D.W. Young's documentary The Booksellers had been a little more like a Frederick Wiseman film, a little slower and more observant, with more time spent digging into specific spaces. As it is, it's more emotional, conveying both an unabashed love of books as well as the heartbreak of an industry that, while maybe not exactly dying, is certainly not as vibrant as it once was. Hunting for a book was once an adventure, but now we have hundreds of copies of once-rare books available online simply because every attic, spare room, and basement has been cleaned out and placed for sale on Amazon or eBay.

The documentary whizzes all over New York, looking at various bookshops, book fairs, and private booksellers, and while it doesn't spend very long on any of them, it frequently comes up with delightful little moments for all of them. One seller tells a story of a friend who literally began to weep when he learned that a first edition James Bond novel was selling for more than an early edition of Don Quixote. Another seller shows us a massive, very heavy volume on his shelf, so unwieldy that he simply cannot be bothered to lug it to sales. So there it will stay. Some collections are shown to have very strange things, like a huge book full of life-size fish drawings, complete with fold-out pages. ("Eat your heart out, Playboy!")

There are many hopeful stories. The legendary Argosy bookshop is still in business, after nearly 100 years, and run by the three daughters of the original proprietor. The reason it's still in business? He was smart enough to buy the building. The sisters explain that they get offers to sell several times a week, but they stay because they love it. We also meet a woman that has made a living selling books with beautifully designed leather covers, making the books feel more like fetish objects. (Indeed, we also learn that a huge part of bookselling is not so much a book's content, but whether or not the dust jacket is included and in good shape.) We also hear from the charismatic Rebecca Romney, a bookseller whose passions have been showcased on the reality show Pawn Stars, ironically leading to more interest in old books.

Several of the booksellers talk ruefully of the emergence of Kindle, but we also learn the encouraging news that more Kindle readers tend to be in their forties and older, while readers in their twenties seem to prefer physical paper books. But there are stories of the way things used to be, about how older bookshop clerks could be perturbed when you bothered them in their reading to purchase a book. Or about how Fran Lebowitz likes to crawl around in dusty bookshop corners to find surprising things. Another bookseller talks about the "hunt," and how pleasurable it would be to search high and low for a certain author's first editions, while now they can all be had in a single afternoon on the web.

I too am a book nerd, and I too know the feeling of what it means to buy a new book and to have to re-arrange everything else on the shelf just to make space for it. Certainly there is as much pleasure in owning a book, in touching it and smelling it, and admiring its typeface and its artwork, as in reading it. While The Booksellers mentions many favorite authors and titles, and while it's clear that most of the lovable eccentrics in the movie are, themselves, avid readers, the movie is not necessarily about reading. That would have been a different movie. This one is about preserving the idea of touching, of looking, of knowledge, and of joy. It's about being human.

In addition to many other useful links about books, the movie's official website has information as to where to go to rent the movie while benefitting your favorite local theaters. My Bay Area readers, for example, may want to contribute to the well-being of either the Balboa Theater or the Vogue Theater. Let's keep sticking together during this time of crisis!

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