It takes all kinds of be a book dealer but the decades old archetype is a good place to start. That starting point for The Booksellers is A.S.W. Rosenbach, who, for the first half of the 20th century, fit the image of the tweed wearing book salesman.
The Booksellers shows its share of talking heads, has new generations describing the pioneer. But it eventually expands to show the book world outside of men and their quaint New York shops. The documentary also takes its audience to where these dealers store their items, and these places aren’t just shelves upon shelves.
Books share wall spaces with artworks, the movie inherently making an argument for how similar artworks and books can be. New York is full of these spaces. A part of a dealer’s work is also going into people’s estates and seeing what they can sell or collect. The movie takes on a palimpsest effect, as dealers find an attraction towards other peoples’ interests.
The documentary is aware of how insular these interests can be, and it does its best to branch out. Rosenbach as a starting point makes sense. The first postmodern generation had a demographic of Jewish Anglophiles. But eventually we see images and the writings of black people and history that black collectors and authors like Kevin Young took an important interest on.
The interesting shift from Shakespeare to Def Jam speaks to the subjects that different generations of sellers’ obsessions. White sellers aren’t just focusing on their own history and its written components. Their archives also include contemporary works.
Female collectors like Rebecca Romney also get their screen time, but there’s something curious about which collectors or dealers get proper introductions through title cards, which speaks to the documentary’s occasional lack of focus.
The documentary tries to be as comprehensive as possible, thinking outside of the box. From demographics, the movie then switches to discussing how the market looks at these books as items. Those shifts sometimes make the film less coherent than it should be.
There are also scenes showing collectors musing on subjects that are worthy to print, but these seem like filler scenes where these people just walk through their aisles and feign surprise at books they forget they had.
Other segments are also excuses for interview subjects to lament the commodification of books. This is a boomer chorus of a world changing around them that even Fran Lebowitz, much as I love her, also echoes. But I won’t let those nitpicks bother me. This documentary is more casual than tweed, where everyone gets a voice and where anyone can get their hands on the books that they love.
This cut of The Booksellers does not have Parker Posey’s narration. It has a two week run at Hot Docs Cinema starting Friday. Click here for more information.