The documentary The Booksellers was set to release theatrically in 2020, but the pandemic hit, and it made its way to Amazon Prime. The film is a group portrait of lovesickness—the ecstasy, labor, and sometimes disappointment of the spurned, of book dealers and collectors.
“If you’re a collector you’re a sick, obsessive, compulsive person,” says a Spanish dealer outside the New York International Antiquarian Book Fair, “who would sell your grandmother to buy something you really like.”
That dealer is articulate and wry, and I would watch an entire documentary about his business, but I cannot say who he is; a recent trend in documentaries is not to identify speakers clearly, if at all. Booksellersdoes it spottily, often by somewhat cute references to first names on title cards. (“Jim” in the title shot is the venerable bookseller James B. Cummins, shown with employee Henry Wessells). Though the film’s website links to participants’ sites or listings elsewhere, there are no photos to identify who was whom in the film. Is this seen as democratizing? Or a mystery that re-enacts the “digging for gold” in their hunts for cherished old books? (Passages read aloud in voiceover at times have no attribution either.)
I recognized Gay Talese, speaking at the book fair, and writer Susan Orlean, and poet Kevin Young, who is also the new director of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Culture, and so a professional archivist and curator of texts and other materials, as well as a private collector.
But the real stars of the film are the dealers themselves, and what the documentary makes clear is their historical role in culture. “What book dealers really do is inculcate neophytes into the wonder of the object of the book,” says Jay Walker, founder of the Walker Library of the History of the Human Imagination. “When you go to a rare book dealer they’re cultivating customers—all the good ones are—for 10, 20, 30 years. So the rare book dealers are transmitting the ability to learn how to appreciate the books.”
“I think a good bookseller absolutely is another kind of discoverer and historiographer and thinker of history,” says Kevin Young.
“This stuff matters,” says a dealer.
Bookselling is a whole world that has changed and in many ways disappeared. The film shows old photos of an entire avenue in NYC that was once lined with bookstores, owned by “dusty” men who did not particularly care if they sold books; they were in it for the reading. The owners of the Argosy, one of the grand stores that remains only because the patriarch of the business had the “foresight” to buy the building, get calls from real estate brokers “five, 10 times a week.”
“In the 1950s there were 368 bookstores in New York City,” says a dealer. “Today I went and counted, and there was 79.”
Other dealers and collectors describe how bookstores once served their communities: “the needs of the people that live locally.” Bookrunners, or book scouts, used to buy books for the booksellers, knowing what they were interested in (“a very happy, symbiotic relationship”), and customers “had to go find” books at the various bookstores they frequented. Much of that activity is gone now.
“It’s become ruined by the Internet,” one dealer says bitterly.
“A great upwelling of shit,” says another, referring to how books are mixed up with Beanie Babies and other non-book items in search results.
Fran Lebowitz, who is interviewed, says she hates corporate-chain bookstores, because they drove the real booksellers, who made life-informed, human choices, out of business.
It is, the dealers profiled agree, a tough if not impossible business, with difficult physical labor, slim margins, long hours, and uncertainty at every turn.
“You have to have the best, the cheapest, or the only copy,” one says of web sales, and another explains how inexpensive reading copies can be harder to find than very expensive books as a result.
Then there is the loss of the bookstore experience, from the smell of old books, to informed discussions with book professionals, to the lack of the ability to browse. “You want to find what you aren’t looking for,” says a seller. “People don’t do that now.” One dealer says if you give him your credit card and tell him to find every first edition in an author’s life’s work, he can do it online in minutes, but that that is gaming something important.
One of the interesting aspects of the film, though, is the difference of opinion between older dealers and younger ones, some of whom say they are just getting started. While women have always been present in the book world and were doing much of the work, they were little recognized, and this is slowly changing. (Rare-book dealing is still 85% men, mostly white, the film shows.) The younger women and minorities interviewed are more optimistic and energized, and their ideas about what will be collected are broader. One young woman archives early hip-hop texts and ephemera.
Along the way we get to meet the owner (Jay Walker) of what may be the largest private library in the world, and the auctioneer at Christie’s who sold the Leonardo Codex to Bill Gates that went for $28 million, “the highest auction price of any book or manuscript in history.” We get to see books set with jewels, and a book bound in human skin. There are enough beautiful books, gorgeous libraries, and charming, quirky booklovers to make this film worthwhile for any dedicated reader, if only because they will recognize aspects of themselves.
Michael Zinman, a collector profiled a decade ago at The New Yorker as “the book eater,” says near the end of the documentary, “The relationship of the individual to the book is very much like a love affair. It’s hard to explain to other people—if you can at all—and it’s truly satisfying to yourself.”