Sunday, April 19, 2020

The Booksellers

I made a comment the other day about how the Coolidge, whether by dint of starting ahead of other local theaters or seeming like a slightly larger organization or something else, seemed to have a bit more of a handle on the whole "running a VOD service" thing than other places, and for The Booksellers they've gotten to the point where they've actually got the film embedded in their own site rather than going to some other place. It's not perfect yet - I couldn't figure out how to get the navigation controls to disappear from my screen as I watched - but it at least seems like the start of a pretty decent system.

I wonder, a bit, if my attitude upon viewing this movie was a bit influenced by finally finishing up a specific Fantasia review immediately beforehand. Black Magic for White Boys is a different sort of movie but also one that can be kind of New York-insular, and there's a lot about The Booksellers that indicate it's not really considering the world outside its own bubble that much. I'm a happy big-city person with access to my hobbies now, but I hope that I won't ever forget what it was like to not have them in reach, and a lot of these people seem to be born into good fortune or at least able to be in orbit around the sort of money these hobbies require and seem to spend a lot of time talking about how this specific application of that privilege seems to be vanishing, with little time spent on how the younger booksellers seem excited about growing their audience compared to the older ones raging against change.

It is, now that I think of it, something of an interesting contrast with last year's IFFBoston selection Not for Resale, which featured video game retailers who, despite the way the industry's evolution was bad for their businesses, still seemed excited enough about the medium and interested in how to share it broadly rather than shuffling it from person to person with the price going up. I find myself rooting for the game-store people a lot more; they seem self-aware and more committed to grappling with the evolution going on around them rather than just stopping it.

It is probably also important to consider that I've come to be less enamored with collecting as I've grown older. I still accumulate like crazy and have trouble getting rid of stuff that's not actually unusable, but I'm bumping up against practical limits of where to keep it all and the difficulty of actually getting it from point A to point B even if I should find a bigger place once I run out of room, and I'm a little less interested in filling in the gaps in a collection than I used to be. I hear folks at the comics shop talk about grading issues or spending money to fill in the gaps or even upgrade the copies they have and kind of wonder what the point is; it's just not the way I interact with those things any more, if it ever was.

So, maybe I'm even less the audience for this movie than I thought, which is fine. I do kind of wonder if it started out talking more about used books and people discovering new authors they love at places that are more geared to readers than collectors but had its focus shift to the proprietors and customers of antiquarian shops because they were bigger and more colorful, since you can certainly see bits which focus more on readers than collectors at certain points, even if that's not the thrust of the final film.

The Booksellers

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Coolidge Corner Theatre Virtual Screening Room, internet)

Movies like The Booksellers don't exactly backfire when, halfway through, certain viewers find that this film meant to celebrate a rare and vanishing breed of person is instead providing examples of just how that breed rubs them the wrong way. A documentary doesn't necessarily need to be convincing to be worthy, but at times there is enough self-satisfaction evident in this one to visibly crowd out the more dynamic stories that filmmaker D.W. Young could be telling.

You almost have to start from the back to see those stories. For example, while Heather O'Donnell and Rebecca Romney have been relatively visible throughout the movie, young women amid a sea of faces that are older and/or male and tweedy, they only get their own focus toward the end, with one saying how she's full of ideas and enthusiasm when the old men in the business talk about the end of an era, and, with ten minutes left in the movie, there's not going to be much time to talk about how people like them are transforming the used and antiquarian book trade. It's not long after Syreeta Gates appears as part of a segment named for the bookseller and archivist she's working with, not even named on screen, but arguably giving the film the biggest jolt of energy it has yet had by talking about how her collection of hip-hop magazines and other writing started by necessity and grew into a resource. It's an immediate demonstration of the value of collecting that has been abstract through much of the film.

There's something like an hour and fifteen minutes before that, though, in which Young takes us to the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, introduces a number of people operating antiquarian bookstores, and spends time talking about the decline in the sheer numbers of bookstores in the city, from how the famous Strand used to be one of many shops on "Book Row" to how younger people idly refer to "the old chain stores". As with many films of this type, it's able to coast on how full of colorful characters it is, from the sisters running the Argosy Book Store talking about how their father took care not to force them into the family business to a man who has an Escher-inspired private library. Young's interviews do a nice job of introducing people, sketching their history, and giving a sense of the obsessive, passionate nature that leads people to this sort of work, and some of the books and other artifacts they are able to display are astounding.

It's often just the very most surface impression of the community, more likely to divert into self-deprecating comments and trivia than any sort of substantive history or examination of the changing book market ecosystem. It name-checks A.S.W. Rosenbach as someone who "reigned supreme" in the rare-book world during the first part of the Twentieth Century but doesn't say more about what that means and how his influence affected the business in the decades since, and a quick digression to talk about Martin Stone, a guitarist who was nearly part of the Rolling Stones and became known as a "book scout" for his ability to find rare materials while on the road, feels like little more than a tease, both for the story of an interesting life or more examination of what an unconventional avocation that is.

Of course, the business doesn't need as many book scouts because Amazon and Ebay and the like have made rare or unusual books from around the world more visible in a way that has made things more difficult for used booksellers, and the lack of any opposition to this perspective is sometimes frustrating for those who don't live in a city that counts only having 79 used bookstores as a sign of decimation; the idea that perceived scarcity is gone and people can build a collection without a lot of effort is only looked at as bad for business rather than good in opening the pleasures of bibliophilia to more than just rich people who can easily travel to Manhattan. Moreover, aside from occasional cuts to authors Fran Lebowitz and Susan Orlean - like Gates, neither is named on-screen, with only Orlean given enough context to show why this passionate person's words carry weight - it's a long stretch before one gets any indication that anybody involved really enjoys reading. Instead, there are cheery profiles of people who talk about the thrill of the pursuit which winds up with them paying large amounts of money for something rare and then placing it in their literal warehouses, never to be seen again until they die.

It's not hard to imagine that these people would be disparaged as hoarders if they were a little less well-off and their collections a little more plebeian, at least until there was academic interest in a topic, as with one subject's L. Frank Baum collection. That seeming paradoxes of how that hoarding can become a valuable academic resource, or how less exclusivity can destroy an industry (or at least force it to change into something new) would be interesting ways to tie this material together, and it's somewhat frustrating that Young doesn't opt to do that so much as highlight personalities and show rooms full of beautiful but seldom-read books. The film is a testament to how such displays have an appeal, and there's nothing wrong with that sort of survey, but it's not a film that will do much for one who doesn't already look upon this group fondly.

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