Release Date: April 17, 2020
Running Time: 99 minutes
As most of us must currently shop online for our essential and nonessential purchases, The Booksellers makes us nostalgic for the days not so long ago when we could enjoy walking into a brick-and-mortar store and browse for pleasure for hours at a time. Or engage with an actual human being for our shopping needs. At the same time, director D.W. Young’s sincere The Booksellers displays genuine concern for a trade that already was struggling to survive in the Digital Age long before the Coronavirus swept across the world. Directed with wistful affection by Young, this illuminating documentary balances intimate portraits of New York-area rare book sellers with a history lesson on the trade and a discussion of how the rise in Internet shopping has placed its future in serious jeopardy. “The Internet has killed the hunt,” argues Dave Bergman, one of the more colorful and passionate veteran antiquarian booksellers we are introduced to by Young. Avid softball player Bergman, who specializes in oversized books, spent months transforming his NYC apartment into a veritable book warehouse. Which, quite frankly, is not as unusual as it seems. Adam Weinberger, who allows Young to follow him on his scavenger hunts for prize finds among belongings of the deceased, stores his books in a studio apartment rather than pay the exorbitant cost to rent NYC retail space. In contrast, the Argosy Book Store remains in better financial health than many other NYC independent bookstores because founder Louis Cohen had the foresight in 1953 to purchase the six-story building that is now home to the Argosy (his three daughters [pictured above], who now run the bookstore, say they constantly refuse offers to sell, knowing that they would not be able then to rent back the space). When not interviewing booksellers, Young chronicles the history of, the cultural importance of, and the past and current trends in buying, selling, and collecting rare books. His bite-sized approach to the various topics he covers perfectly complements the intimate profiles he compiles. He also leaves us wondering what it would be like to touch a rare book entrusted in jewels or—God forbid!—bound in human flesh. How much longer will collectors want or need to engage the services of rare booksellers? For that matter, much longer will the average reader care to purchase a physical copy of a book? Is the bound book a few years away from becoming a collectible commodity like the vinyl record? There remains a conflict of opinion on how buying and selling books—new or rare—will change in the coming years. “You don’t spend $25,000 on a first edition of ‘Moby Dick’ because you want to read Melville,” says Dave Bergman. “It’s the object, and that’s what worries me about the future of the book trade. It is not going to speak to people the way it speaks to people of my generation.” Says Honey & Wax’s Heather O’Donnell: “We don’t have trouble selling books. The death of the book is highly overrated.” Some of the current trends dissected in The Booksellers could help energize and sustain the book trade. Some rare booksellers dedicate themselves to seeking out literature by traditionally neglected authors, from women to minorities. Pop culturalists seek to preserve the infancy of hip-hop by collecting magazines published pre-Internet. Authors such as Susan Orlean work with professionals to archive their life’s work and notes to sell to academic institutions. Of course, the book trade now has more to contend with in the form of Coronavirus pandemic. Odds are many of the individual booksellers and independent bookstores already experiencing financial problems as a result of the Internet may be wiped out by the pandemic. Bearing this in mind, The Booksellers arrives feeling somewhat dated through no fault of its own and begs for an addendum by director D.W. Young.
Note: The Austin Film Society is presenting virtual screenings of The Booksellers through April 30 at https://thebooksellers.vhx.tv/products/the-booksellers-for-austin-film-society
Posted: April 20, 2020