'The Booksellers': Film Review | NYFF 2019

Courtesy of Film
A treat for anyone who appreciates the printed word.

D.W. Young's documentary, executive produced by Parker Posey, delivers a behind-the-scenes look at the New York rare book world.

Bibliophiles are likely to be increasingly depressed these days, thanks to the rise of ebooks and the continuing demise of bookstores. D.W. Young's documentary The Booksellers, receiving its world premiere at the New York Film Festival, should provide something of a balm to those beleaguered souls. Providing a behind-the-scenes look at the world of rare book dealers but also digressing into topics revolving around the printed word in general, the film will be enjoyed by anyone who's ever happily spent hours wandering through bookstores with no specific goal in mind.

"The world is divided between people who collect things, and people who don't know what the hell these people are doing collecting things," observes one of the doc's subjects. Needless to say, the film very much concentrates on the former, especially those who attend the annual Antiquarian Book Fair at New York City's Park Avenue Armory, a mecca for rare book collectors. Ironically, as if to underscore the archaic products being exhibited, the armory is a virtual antique itself, dating back to the late 19th century and featuring a giant clock that no longer works.

Among the dealers who exhibit there are Dave Bergman, who specializes in giant-sized books and whose apartment is packed to the gills with his inventory. "Every time I buy another book, I have to rearrange the entire place," he says sardonically.

We learn that in the 1950s there were 358 bookstores in New York City and that now there are only 79 remaining (it's actually surprising there are still that many). Among the notable used and rare bookstores that have survived are The Strand, opened in 1929 and now the only one left of what used to be dozens of such establishments on 4th Avenue, once dubbed "Book Row." There's also the Argosy Book Store on E. 59th Street, established in 1925 and currently run by the three daughters of the original owner. Tellingly, both of these are family businesses, and their longevity can be ascribed to the fact that the families own the buildings in which their stores are located.

The doc fascinatingly delves into the history of book collecting, spotlighting such pioneering figures as legendary British dealer A.S. W. Rosenbach, whose nickname was "The Napoleon of Books," and researchers Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine B. Stern, who uncovered Louisa May Alcott's pseudonym of A.M. Bernard, which the author of Little Women used when writing pulp romance fiction.

Author Fran Lebowitz offers plenty of amusing commentary throughout the film. "You know what they used to call independent bookstores? Bookstores," she jokes, adding, "They were all independent." Novelist Susan Orlean weighs in as well, talking about having sold her archives to Columbia University and worrying that in the age of computers, researchers will no longer have the opportunity to explore writers' creative processes.

Several of the interview subjects point out that while the internet is great for collectors, who can find anything they want with just a few keystrokes, it's been terrible for booksellers. The very word "Kindle" sends shudders up booksellers' spines, although not all of them are ready to write off the printed word just yet. "I think the death of the book is highly overrated," one dealer comments.

The doc includes amusing profiles of several of the more eccentric collectors, including one dealer who handles books bound in human skin and Priceline.com founder Jay Walker, who has a massive library in his home dedicated to the "human imagination" and inspired by M.C. Escher.

The Booksellers tends to be a bit too digressive at times, lapsing into many tangents that are never uninteresting but tend to cause it to lose focus. Nonetheless, the film provides an evocative portrait of a way of life that is hopefully not completely vanishing anytime soon.

Production company: Blackletter Films
Director-editor: D.W. Young
Producers: Dan Wechsler, Judith Mizrachy
Executive producers: Parker Posey
Director of photography: Peter Bolte
Composer: David Ullmann
Venue: New York Film Festival

99 minutes