As a general rule I’ve an aversion to reviews in which the critic begins by talking about him or herself. You know the routine: “Speaking as an young, Asian, gay, white-water rafter I feel uniquely qualified to talk about this movie…” But in this instance I’m compelled to begin with a confession: “My name is John and I’m a bookaholic”.
Over the years I’ve kept myself poor with a book-buying habit that has waxed and waned with my income. I’ve built a library the same size as my house, and filled it up. I’ve never been the least bit discouraged by a chronic lack of shelf space. I’m not a buyer of rare books, although I would be if I had the money. My golden mean is a good quality hardcover with a dustjacket, which need not be a first edition.
My library is not full of fetishes and trophies – even if there’s an inevitable element of that. It’s more of a knowledge bank, filled with books that can be mined for information or inspiration on a daily basis. It’s a gigantic jigsaw puzzle in which blank spaces are crying out to be filled, a psychic comfort zone with useful volumes on almost any topic that requires comment.
On my travels I’ve always haunted museums, art galleries and second-hand book shops. Watching D.W.Young’s The Booksellers, about the book dealers of New York, I realised I’d visited many of the establishments featured in this documentary, including Skyline Books, which closed in 2010, a victim of rising rents and declining sales. Such problems have afflicted many of the dealers in this film, who discuss their jobs with varying degrees of optimism and pessimism.
Young has chosen to focus on a hard core of rare book dealers who view the business as a personal passion rather than a commercial proposition. Dave Bergman has retreated to his apartment, which is stuffed, floor to ceiling, with giant-sized leather bound volumes he enthusiastically opens and displays to the camera. Jim Cummins has accumulated 400,000 books and collectables, mostly stored in a New Jersey warehouse. Adina Cohen, Naomi Hample and Judith Lowry, the three sisters who run the fabulous Argosy Book Store, inherited the business from ther father, who was able to buy the building in the 1960s. Every other week they receive an offer for this valuable piece of Manhattan real estate, but the store means more to them than the millions they would make on the sale.
No documentary on New York booksellers could exclude The Strand, the behemoth started by Benjamin Bass in 1927, and now owned by his granddaughter, Nancy Bass Wyden. The Strand was originally part of a Fourth Avenue district known as “Book Row”. Nowadays, relocated to Broadway and 12th Street, it is the sole survivor of those days.
We’re told that in 1958 there were 358 bookshops in New York City but today there are only 79. The reasons seem obvious enough, but one of the talking points in this movie is whether the ‘death of the book’ is an inevitability or a furphy. Opinions are divided, but not along the lines that might be expected. It’s the older bookdealers who feel the game is up, while the younger ones see many signs of renewal.
One of those signs is a new wave of small second-hand bookstores opening in NYC. These young dealers are booklovers who never suffered that first jolt when it became possible to seek out titles on the Internet. For customers, a book for which they had been searching for years might be found within seconds for a wide range of prices. Any bookseller that put a big figure on such a volume might find themselves undercut by more enterprising, smaller dealers who weren’t paying for rent or staff.
One of the results of this change was a move into collectables such as posters, objects and memorabilia. Autograph manuscripts and signed copies became more valuable as standard first editions slipped. Some sellers became specialists in certain kinds of books, such as Bibi Mohamed, who deals in leather-bound editions, or Henry Wessells, an expert in science fiction and exotica, who says he has handled two books bound in human skin, both copies of Hans Holbein Jr.’s Dance of Death.
As well as the booksellers, the filmmakers interview writers such as Susan Orlean, Gay Talese and Fran Lebowitz – the latter still regretting the loan of a book to David Bowie. Then there are the collectors, notably Michael Zinman, who has amassed a vast trove of antique books and manuscripts, including multiple editions of the same text; or Jay Walker, who has created a Library of the Imagination, in which books are arranged according to height on labyrinthine shelves inspired by M.C.Escher.
Another collector, Caroline Schimmel, has assembled an historically important library of women writers, a field that had been largely neglected until she arrived. Schimmel owes her buying power to the strongly masculine character of the trade, which one female bookseller estimates as 85 per cent male. In an historical digression we learn about Rostenberg and Stern, two pioneering female booksellers whose entrepreneurial and scholarly achievements have taken on a legendary cast.
Among the pleasures of a great second-hand bookstore is the pleasure of browsing, bringing with it the tantalising possibility of discovering things you never knew you wanted. This is the very opposite of a dedicated web search, and it’s one of the reasons bookshops will always have their devotees – even if they may not be in sufficient numbers to cover spiralling inner city rents. This documentary is very much in the browsing mode, allowing us a glimpse into the privacy of the booksellers’ world, where we sample a range of anecdotes and opinions.
Admittedly, some people get the same thrill of discovery shopping for clothes or shoes, but the true bibliophile would always sooner buy another book than anything that might be worn or eaten. As this film reveals, the love of books is not exactly a rational pursuit or a great way to make a living, but in these contrary times it is one of the key indicators that we’re still clinging to the tattered rags of civilisation.
Written & directed by D.W.Young
Starring Fran Lebowitz, Gay Talese, Susan Orlean, Kevin Young, Jay Walker, numerous booksellers…
USA, rated PG, 99 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 11 July, 2020