The cinematic portrayal of an antiquarian bookseller is usually of a gray-haired old guy in a tweed jacket who grumbles whenever he is disturbed by a customer. The bookstore is musty and dim, and you can see dust fly out of a book when it slammed shut. The Booksellers doesn’t necessarily dispel this stereotype (like many fields, the experts are aging-out with not a whole lot of interested people to replace them), but it lovingly portrays the buyers and sellers of old and rare books, specifically in the former book-center-of-the-universe of New York City.
One street in Manhattan used to be the home of hundreds of bookstores, but now their struggling numbers are in the 70s. The folks that run these stores are still full of passion about what they peddle, but like many other things in these changing times, the consumer base is changing. Things like technology, pop culture, declining reading habits, disposable income, and people’s collectible interests in general, the once-thriving antiquarian book market is not what it used to be. When the average rare book collector was described as an affluent white male, it is hard to see that things have changed when Bill Gates himself won the auction for Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester with a bid of $30 million dollars (in 1994).
The Booksellers give a peek into many of the oldest bookshops in New York, like the Argosy Book Store (the oldest independent bookstore in Manhattan), plus into the storage places of several of the rare book sellers. One guy rented a studio that was packed to the ceiling with boxes because a storefront was too expensive. Another pair had a warehouse with 300,000 books (!). We meet some of the collectors as well, including younger, modern aficionados, like one young woman who collected hip hop magazines from the 90s because, surprise surprise, they weren’t available digitally and it was the only way she could find contemporary writing about some of the biggest stars like Tupac and Biggie that died young. The enthusiasm of the hip hop collector and other younger interviewees gives hope that this field is not dying, but like many things in this economy, it is evolving and changing.
If you are one who spends your free time actually reading entire books ABOUT books (in my case, for instance, the provenance of one copy of the Gutenberg Bible, or the full publishing history of the original editions of Gone With the Wind… and no, I’m not even kidding), The Booksellers feels like a pebble skipping along the surface of a fascinatingly broad topic, barely touching upon SO many interesting things about books. Shoot, antiquarian booksellers should get an extended documentary series in my book (no pun intended). I would watch whole documentaries on binding, preservation, auctions, archives, book experts, etc., but The Booksellers is certainly a nice start.
[For information on watching The Booksellers at home via a virtual screening, visit the official website.]