The Booksellers


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The Booksellers
"This is an immersive tour of bookselling and collecting that breezes along as pleasantly as a beach read, while still carrying with it chapter and verse."

Long before films were transporting us into realms of imagination, there were books, and DW Young's documentary is a reminder of why they still have the power to enthrall. Tactile from the off - with its shots of book plates and close-ups of page edges that you can almost smell - this is an immersive tour of bookselling and collecting that breezes along as pleasantly as a beach read, while still carrying with it chapter and verse.

Young blends history with a survey of the cultural expectations attached to bookselling, as antiquarian collectors, auctioneers and curators - all of them fierce advocates of the printed page - talk about their passion and its oddities. Cliche dictates that booksellers should be eccentric and probably old, male and white to boot, something that Young's film doesn't shy away from. But as he takes a deep dive into the pages of history, he illustrates the diversity that exists in the profession - albeit that younger and minority group collectors (including women, who still make up only about 15 percent of sellers) don't think that change is coming quickly enough.

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Introduced by their first names, we meet people whose collections hold everything from back-breaking books on the Roman catacombs to lifesize fish anatomy and Hemingway, while contributors including writer Fran Lebowitz sprinkle in a good dose of wit. Passion for a subject is always infectious and this film has it by the bucketload. There's also, despite the eye-watering prices some of the books fetch, a sense of the accessibility of collecting, as younger converts to the sport talk about the niche areas - including women's fiction and hip hop - that led them to catch the bug.

As Young guides us through the history of famous bookstores, including New York's famous Strand and Argosy, cinematographer Peter Bolte's camera takes us on a guided tour of various archives, while the interviewees provide quirky anecdotes and observations about their careers. They talk about the fashions that have come and gone in the industry - vogues that have seen Casino Royale fetch more than Don Quixote - and the impact that the internet and mobile devices have had on their work. Although this is New York-centric, that lends it a geographically specific charm while the themes remain universal

There's an offbeat joy to some of the inclusions, with the smooth editing from the director striking a good balance between fact and fun, helped along by a jazz-inflected score from David Ullmann. Despite the age of some of the participants, this film has an energy that suggests reports of the death of books may be greatly exaggerated. As one interviewee points out, the relationship between a person and a book is "like a love affair" - you're likely to want to fall in love all over again after watching this.

Reviewed on: 30 Jun 2020
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A tour of New York’s book world, past and present.
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New York 2019

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