2020 | unrated (PG equivalent) | Documentary | starring Fran Lebowitz | narrated by Parker Posey | directed by D. W. Young | 1 hr 39 mins |
Hands up if you’re absolutely sick of political documentaries. The Michael Moore-ification of the documentary in the last 20 years has infected the genre with a black tar and reshaped documentaries into reality message movies where they became judged by – not the light they could shine on a new idea or subculture – but how well they built some social or political case. The best documentaries don’t do that. The King of Kong, Room 237, The Act of Killing, Hail Satin, Faces Places, Hearts of Darkness, just to name a few, present an unvarnished look at a unique slice of life. Add to that group The Booksellers, director D.W. Young’s absolutely delightful trip into the subculture of rare book collectors in New York City.
Booksellers is a presented refreshingly free of irony, at no point presenting any of it’s subjects as quirky or weird. It features a series of interviews with collectors of history and rare books and manuscripts from their trade shows to tours of their shops themselves. They tell us how they got into collecting, show us some of their prize possessions and discuss the state of the independent bookstore in the internet age. In that sense The Booksellers might make a fine companion with Olivier Assayas’ Non-Fiction centered on a book publisher that copes with the changing landscape of the literary world in the internet age.
Young lays all of this in under smooth jazz and subjects who speak smoothly and confidently enough to get your ASMR going. It is leisurely paced without an artificial narrative grafted onto it. These people collect, they negotiate at auction because, as one of them says nobody buys a first addition of Moby Dick because they want to read Mellville, they put in on the shelf and forget about it until someone comes along asking for something like it. They like the hunt, a hunt that has been cut off at the knees with a simple eBay search. If you got swept up in the romanticized atmosphere of a rare book store in Brooklyn in You, Booksellers might be worth exploring.
One of the more interesting discussions is about the value of the physical book itself: what the dog-eared pages, scratches and tears imprinted on the work now say about it in a Kindle world where everything is clean and perfected. What the dust-jacket bio says in a world where books can just be deleted out of a playlist and why “burning books” is so often used as a symbol of fascism, how this idea gets to erasing the irreplaceable history that frightens us to the core. 3/4ths of the way through the film does dove-tail into the politics that all movies should for a bit. There is a section where the women in the film lament that there aren’t more women bookstore owners and collectors. It was an 80/20 ratio in the 70s and it still is today. Other than the history that book collection was an aristocrat’s game for most of it’s history, the movie has no explanation for why only 20% of women choose to go into book collecting or why a subculture this niche and small benefits from slicing and dicing it by demographics anyway. It’s not really a problem you can force into a solution.
Booksellers is an incredibly pleasant experience of a film that also delivers a lot of food for thought about the past, present and future of literary publications. The movie effectively conveys the feeling of being in a bookstore, wrapped in a blanket with a trendy cup of coffee and leafing through the pages of a hardback book.
*Note I’m intentionally categorizing this as romance. It’s not a drama, it’s not a comedy, it’s not a traditional love story but it is a celebration of classical romantic ideals*