The battle between physical and digital media rages on in The Booksellers.
In general, I think we here at Pop Culture Beast are big fans of real objects: discs, action figures, board games, and books. And so, the new documentary The Booksellers, from director D.W. Young and executive producer Parker Posey, is pretty much our kind of thing.
Back in March, The Booksellers opened briefly in New York, the film’s main location. Now, it is opening virtually in select cities, including Los Angeles. This means moviegoers (or should I say, moviestayers) can watch the film from home, but their rental fee will go toward the independent cinema that was booked to show the film before the COVID-19 epidemic. More info on this virtual cinema program can be found on the Booksellers website.
This cooperation between movie theaters and streaming video providers points to one of the main takeaways of The Booksellers. Even though it’s supposedly common knowledge that no one reads physical books anymore, there is certainly room for the internet, e-book downloads, and physical media to coexist. In fact, younger bookworms — such as Rebecca Romney, one of the sellers profiled — are finding ways to use these newfangled electronics to convert readers to become physical book collectors.
The old-timers, however, have reasons to be wary. Most of the book trade people that Young features in his documentary are middle-aged and older. They’ve lived through different rare-book gold rushes — pristine dust jackets are selling huge! now it’s all about author signatures! — and they saw the bottom drop out of their livelihood as soon as internet marketplaces came to prominence. The market was no longer the city in which you operated, it was the world. Why would someone pay $50 for a first edition in New York when an online store in Wisconsin can ship it for $15?
Young’s documentary is personality-driven, as he follows different characters through aspects of their working life. Book scout Adam Weinberger makes house calls, going through huge and dusty personal collections in search of treasure. Dealer Dave Bergman lugs enormous old texts from his crowded apartment to book fairs and trade shows. Adina Cohen, Naomi Hample, and Judith Lowry are sisters who run New York’s oldest independent bookstore, Argosy (est. 1925). Young talks to specialists and archivists and appraisers and auctioneers. He travels from overcrowded studio apartments to overcrowded warehouses.
The overcrowding is possibly a product of the waning physical book business. More likely it’s because everyone that Young highlights is an enthusiast first and a business person second (or third or…).
As much as it bemoans the loss of the old book business, The Booksellers celebrates the joys that physical books can bring. They can act as a historical artifact, a resource, and a comforting talisman. Noted raconteur Fran Lebowitz values books so much that she is downright horrified as she describes someone placing a drink on a book in public. “If he did that in my house,” she says, “I’d kill him.” (Ironically, a valuable first edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tamerlane discussed later in the doc is shown to have a stain from a prior owner placing a drink on its cover.)
The Booksellers is charming and compelling enough that it should appeal to viewers far beyond book lovers. It is part unexpected history lesson of a business whose moment is on the wane, much like Colin Hanks’s All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records or Erik Greenberg Anjou’s Deli Man. It is also part character study of the lovable oddballs found in a cultural niche, like the 8-track enthusiasts of So Wrong They’re Right or the Christmas music connoisseurs of Jingle Bell Rocks.
The tricky thing with this kind of doc, which doesn’t really have a strong narrative through line, is not overstaying your welcome. While The Booksellers is not an egregious offender in this respect, it’s maybe a touch long at 100 minutes. On the other hand, considering the current epidemic, what’s your rush?
If you’re a collector of any kind — or if you just find them interesting — The Booksellers is a smart and satisfying glimpse into the back rooms of a familiar world.
The Booksellers is available now as part of the Virtual Cinema Initiative. Go here to buy a ticket to stream the film and support your local independent cinema.
More Pop Culture Beast – Movies:
*April Criterion Channel Picks to Battle Pandemic Boredom
*Now on home video! Recorder profiles a VHS idealist
*Now on Hulu! Portrait of a Lady on Fire burns with repressed passion
*Now on Hulu! Dark comedy Parasite is 2019’s best
Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.