As author Fran Lebowitz reminds us in the terrific new documentary The Booksellers, there was a time not so long ago when, if you had an hour to kill in New York City, you could walk into one of the city’s hundreds of used bookstores and browse to your heart’s content. Today, in a world where books can be delivered to your door and reading books on tablets is a popular method of consuming literature, the art and therapeutic value of browsing and hunting for rare finds is a dying art. Directed by D.W. Young and narrated by executive producer Parker Posey, The Booksellers profiles a handful of high-end book dealers, scouts, and collectors and attempts to find out what their place might be in today’s world.
In many ways, Lebowitz’s humorous commentary serves as a loose structure for the film’s flow, which begins at a rare book fair that is apparently a shadow of its former self since the internet has killed the thrill of the hunt for rare treasures at estate sales, auctions, and small book stores that didn’t realize the value of certain pieces in their collection. At the same time, certain younger book enthusiasts make the claim that it’s younger people who have gone back to reading physical books these days, perhaps spelling a future for actual books to make a comeback the same way vinyl has in recent years. And with this resurgence in physical media, the surviving independent bookstores have begun seeing an uptick in business again.
One of the people bringing books back into fashion is “Pawn Stars” expert Rebecca Romney, whose knowledge is vast even though she’s still relatively young. The film makes the point that for decades the only people considered experts in the field of rare books were older white men. The Booksellers does an admirable job dispelling that belief today and giving examples of women and people of color who have built up impressive collections of not just traditionally valuable books, but of literature that reflects their perspective on the world.
Most of those featured here are, in their own ways, eccentric—perhaps even odd, but it’s easy to see their appeal and how great it would be to walk into their establishment and get lost for days. I particularly like the collector who arranges his books by size, with no regard to subject matter or author. As someone who has never read a book on an electronic device, I tend to scoff at the notion of bookstores disappearing entirely, especially when a film like this makes it clear that those stores that have survived have passionate clientele and even more devoted owners who will find a way to keep the hunt alive.
The film is available beginning today for a weeklong run as a part of Gene Siskel Film Center’s “Film Center from Your Sofa” program. A portion of your rental benefits the Film Center.
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