“The Booksellers” – According to a 2019 Pew Research Center study, 73 percent of U.S. adults have started at least one book in the past year, but this is down from a 2005 Gallup News Service poll, in which 83 percent did.
Why the drop? Well, one can point to several factors: longer work hours, shorter attention spans, social media’s rise, instant gratification needs, home streaming services, and the Joe Exotic documentary series. Actually, Netflix released “Tiger King” in 2020, a year after the 2019 findings, so we can’t blame it on Mr. Exotic.
Okay, let’s just note that professional wrestling and “The Bachelor” haven’t exactly helped book sales and call it a day.
It’s true. The 21st century doesn’t feel like an enlightened era in which humanity has collectively stretched towards the written word, one that is typed on coated or uncoated paper stock, supported with binder’s board, wrapped in cloth or leather, and glued on an elemental spine.
Whether you’ve started a book in the past year or not, it’s hard to imagine someone who doesn’t like books. Hey, books are great, and bookstores are fun!
Director D.W. Young seems to appreciate the alluring joy of a great bookstore, and he offers plenty of them – which appear in countless, wide-ranging forms – and also showcases the men and women who buy, stock and sell tangible, handheld treasures in “The Booksellers”, his intriguing cinematic cornucopia of New York City’s book world.
(Please note that the aforementioned men and women turn up in wide-ranging forms as well, and these eccentric drivers of this hyper-focused industry are as fascinating as the rare books that they seek.)
Over the course of 97 minutes, Young packs an incalculable number of quips, sayings, trends, facts, oddities, ideas, biographies, and anecdotes, along with some distresses but mostly warm feelings into his documentary. He travels from bookstore to bookstore, but also to offices, apartments and fairs, including the New York International Antiquarian Book Fair.
It’s here that we are introduced to book dealer Henry Wessells, who explains, “It’s another New York book fair which is the roller coaster ride between tedium and great bits of commerce and discoveries.”
Another seller jumps in and says, “My PhD is in 16th century Spanish lyric poetry, which explains why I’m totally broke after 15 years of academia. I left that in order to become an antiquarian book dealer, so I’ve had the pleasure of having really fantastic books in my hands.”
Whoosh, and we’re off on this dizzying, but pleasurable and peculiar journey. After about 20 minutes, however, “The Booksellers” wanders, or a minimum, it seems awfully tricky to gain your footing from a big picture perspective. It’s so easy to feel disoriented, but not in the moment. No, in the immediate present, Young dives deep with the highest clarity on an individual who (or a particular intricacy that) fits into this passionate pantheon.
For example, take Dave Bergman. He’s a pleasant, gray-haired 40 or 50-something who claims that he’s not fit for any other profession but the book business. When he’s not purchasing a 1907 photo album that includes a 15,000 year-old clump of hair from a mammoth (yes, from an actual mammoth), Dave plays on seven softball teams every week.
We do see him again, but not before, we are whisked to the Strand Bookstore. Sometimes, Young provides the names of his on-screen subjects. On other occasions, he doesn’t, but his doc always turns each cinematic page with thought-provoking color, whether we catch a person’s or locale’s name or not.
Some familiar faces pop up, including a world-famous NYC author (who will not be revealed in this review) and also Rebecca Romney, a book dealer who frequents the Las Vegas-based TV show “Pawn Stars”. Another book dealer Heather O’Donnell mentions that – years ago – the industry was comprised of 85 percent men, but not much has changed today. That didn’t stop Young from finding compelling women to interview.
Like many other businesses, there may be some institutional roadblocks here, but “The Booksellers” feels inclusive and abundant, even if the industry sits on somewhat-shaky ground. Books are vulnerable, like print newspapers, but with one big difference. A newspaper’s print edition loses its worth when the latest and greatest Internet news updates arise, but books don’t have that tiny shelf life (pardon the pun). Their contents are timeless, and with great care, their physical forms can be as well.
Here’s hoping that bookstores will still be with us in 2120, and as “The Booksellers” concludes, another revelation may strike you. D.W. Young’s film might wander, but it is with a purpose. Have you ever gotten lost in a bookstore for hours and wonder where the time went, as you eventually leave with a drunken smile on your face? Yea, “The Booksellers”….same thing.
⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Trailer credits: Greenwich Entertainment