With states closing all but the most essential businesses to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, there’s been some debate about what qualifies as “essential.” Some bookstore owners have been arguing their case, with folks like Missouri’s Skylark Bookshop owner Alex George saying, “Now more than ever, access to books is critical to our collective mental health.”
Amen. And if you count yourself as one of those people who love getting lost in a bookstore, particularly a (slightly) musty one that sells used and rare volumes (and, hopefully, has a cat), then the documentary “The Booksellers” will offer some comfort in this time of deprivation. It’s an engaging look at New York’s antiquarian book world, for starters, but it also goes off on a number of interesting tangents (perhaps too many for its own good), always, eventually, circling back to the idea that reading is in an essential part of our humanity.
D.W. Young’s lovely film introduces us to several sellers of rare books, New Yorkers, all of them smart and self-aware enough to know how they’re perceived. (There hasn’t been this much tweed in a movie since “Gosford Park.”) The initial landing point is the annual Antiquarian Book Fair at the Park Avenue Armory on the Upper East Side, but from there, the film moves to some of Manhattan’s legendary bookshops, including the six-story Argosy Book Store and the Strand Book Store. Writer Fran Lebowitz, who lends her wit throughout the movie, remembers crawling around the latter, always winding up in a room she wasn’t supposed to enter.
The Strand opened in 1927 and is the last remaining store in an East Village area that once had so many sellers it was called “Book Row.” That sense of economic fragility is a constant specter in “The Booksellers,” with some dealers lamenting that the internet ruined the business. At the very least, notes one, it has taken the fun out of it. “Collecting is about the hunt, not the object.”
But there’s also a pervasive optimism from the film’s subjects, particularly among younger dealers like Rebecca Romney (you might know her if you watch “Pawn Stars” on the History Channel), who’s full of ideas and enthusiasm about the growing number of younger women in the rare-book world.
“I go on the subway a lot,” Lebowitz says, “and the people that I see reading books, actual books, in the subway are mostly in their 20s. This is one of the few encouraging things you will ever see in a subway.”
I’ll take whatever encouragement I can find these days, even if I can’t help but worry about all the dealers seen in “The Booksellers,” whose livelihoods weren’t exactly prosperous even before the world shut down. Then I hear about robust online orders from the Last Bookstore here in Los Angeles and Powell’s in Portland, and I remember the powerful connection that humans still have with the printed word.
“We really project into books this very subliminal belief that they’ll outlast us, that they’ll pass our stories along, our knowledge, our dreams, our visions, all of what is the product of human thought,” author Susan Orlean says late in the documentary.
“The Booksellers” shares a few of those stories and a little of that learning. And I have to tell you: It feels really good to be roaming those aisles of bookshelves again, even if it’s just through a screen.
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Playing: Available April 17 on VOD via Laemmle’s Virtual Cinema