Author Maurice Sendak said, “There’s so much more to a book than just the reading.” A new documentary, “The Booksellers,” is a Valentine to books and the people who understand that the printed word is just the beginning of our relationship to a book.
“The Booksellers” begins with some sobering facts. The New York City, the center of antiquarian bookselling, in the 1950’s had 368 book stores. Today there are less than 100. The suggestion is that changing tastes and the ease of buying a book on line has destroyed a once thriving industry but while there may be fewer shops, the passion for the business remains undiminished.
After a quick history lesson of bookselling in New York City we meet the people who form the backbone of the modern-day trade. Stephen Massey’s family has been involved in the business so long that their store is mentioned in James Joyce’s Dubliners.
Judith Lowry, Naomi Hample and Alina Cohen took over the Argosy Book Store in midtown Manhattan from their father and refuse to sell to the developers who come knocking on a weekly basis. “People would ask our father how he got all three daughters to work for him,” says Lowry, “and he would say, ‘I guess I’m just lucky.’”
Nancy Bass Wydern, is the third-generation owner of The Strand Bookstore, situated on Book Row, a once bustling area now whittled down to one lone book store.
Talking head Fran Lebowitz looks back on the Book Row of the 1970s. “One thing I remember about those guys is that they were very irritated if you wanted to buy a book,” she says. “They wanted to read all day.”
From there we get into the nitty gritty, the obsessive collecting that drives the antiquarian book market. We meet a man who spent over a million dollars to reinforce the walls of his NYC apartment so his laden bookshelves wouldn’t collapse. We learn about the collectors, including Bill Gates who paid $30,802,500 for a collection of scientific writings by Leonardo da Vinci in 1994.
We also learn how collecting has changed. “Collecting is about the hunt,” says one seller. “The internet has killed the hunt.” Another mentions how the internet changed the way collectors speak about what is rare and what is not.
The film, which also covers a collector of vintage hip hop ephemera and the millennials who inject some new life into this old field, isn’t about books. We see shelves stuffed with books and a book covered in human skin, but this is about the devotion of the collectors and sellers. They are an eccentric bunch, but director D.W. Young does a great job of showing how their devotion to books as part of our cultural DNA drives them.