Skip to main content
film review

The Booksellers offers a behind-the-scenes look at the New York rare-book world.Courtesy of GAT

  • The Booksellers
  • Directed by D.W. Young
  • Classification PG; 99 minutes

Rating:

3 out of 4 stars

For the past few days, I’ve struggled to come up with a way to make a documentary about antiquarian booksellers sound exciting. Charming, yes. Quirky and fascinating? Check and check. But if, say, the Marvel Cinematic Universe represents one end of the current film landscape, then D.W. Young’s new documentary, The Booksellers, rests at the far, lonely, opposite pole.

Bookended by visits to the New York International Antiquarian Book Fair, a sprawling affair held annually at Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory, the film features an eccentric cast of characters who have dedicated their lives to what Nicholas Basbanes, the great scholar of bibliophile history, calls “a gentle madness.” What is it about books that has led to such obsession, both from dealers – who stay in the field despite increasing financial risk (and, considering many spend their lives surrounded by precariously stacked towers of books, physical risk as well) – and from collectors, who hand over sometimes-obscene sums of money to feed their addiction?

New movies this weekend, including spare and powerful First Cow, heartbreaking Red Snow and Netflix thriller Lost Girls

Addiction isn’t a stretch; the booksellers themselves are, in some ways, pushers. In the words of billionaire Jay Walker, owner of the Library of the History of Human Imagination, possibly the most beautiful private library in the world and one of the field’s most famous collectors, “what rare book dealers really do is inculcate neophytes into the wonder of the object of the book.” The author and humorist Fran Lebowitz tells a story about begging a dealer not to show her a book, and the dealer continuing to insist – just one little taste.

Heather O'Donnell and Rebecca Romney work in a book world that has historically been male-dominated.Courtesy of GAT

There’s probably an eagerness to sell because, as one of the film’s many talking heads puts it, “the last 10 years has seen the beginning of the end of the book as a central object in our culture.” You can trace the decline further back than that, sadly. The documentary, which mostly focuses on the New York trade, chronicles the history of bookselling in the city, which revolved around “Book Row” – shop after shop, run by “little dusty Jewish men” in the words of Lebowitz – crammed into a few city blocks like volumes of poetry on an overstuffed shelf. In the 1950s, there were 368 bookstores in New York; today, the number has fallen to about 80.

The villains are what you’d expect: chain bookstores, ebooks, rising rents (Argosy, New York’s oldest independent, is still around because they own the building), a lack of interest in books (Lebowitz, again: “People used to pretend to read more”), and, of course, AbeBooks, the online used-book giant, which is (of course) owned by Amazon. “It’s become ruined by the internet,” huffs one dealer. Partly, it’s envy – in the past, book dealers were also treasure hunters, tracking down valuable first editions at estate and garage sales. Now, you can go online and find 30 copies of a book that was once considered rare. Prices have adjusted accordingly.

Still, it’s not all bad news. There are hints of a bookselling resurgence, and, as the world has continued to digitize, a renewed interest in the analog. It’s an appreciation of the physical – the film is filled with scenes in which people cradle leather-clad editions as if they were holding a newborn – but an acknowledgement of the practical, too. You might not be able to open a file you created seven years ago, someone points out, but you can easily open a book that was produced 70 or even 700 years ago.

The movie feels like a short-story collection rather than a novel; there is no central bookseller or collector who serves as the film’s spine. Everyone gets a minute or three, and then we turn the page. I got the sense they didn’t want to leave any of their friends out. (Dan Wechsler, one of the film’s producers, is a rare books dealer himself.) Young is willing to criticize the trade – there’s a fairly robust discussion about the sexism of the books world, which has historically been dominated by men – but he also does a good job of featuring a diversity of voices. Some dusty, some Jewish, some men, but not all.

I am, admittedly, its ideal viewer – I own enough books to last me several lifetimes – but that doesn’t change the fact that The Booksellers is a lovely documentary – contemplative and captivating. I finished the film and felt compelled to turn off the screen and pick up a book.

The Booksellers opens March 13 in Toronto, March 27 in Edmonton, and April 3 in Calgary

Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter, with film, TV and streaming reviews and more. Sign up today.