Director: D.W. Young
Books have always been affordable, portable time machines. Open the right one up, and you find yourself in ancient Athens or Victorian London or a dystopian future Chicago.
But sometimes we’re transported not by the words in the books, but by the books themselves—products of their own place and time. Vellum pages filled with hand-drawn pictures. Covers decorated with jewels or gilding or even human bone. Open an old book, and you’re performing a rite that another soul performed decades ago. Or centuries.
Books don’t just hold the treasure of language. They can be treasures themselves. And no one knows that better than New York City’s cadre of quirky, passionate, antiquarian book sellers.
The Booksellers, a documentary directed by D.W. Young, offers a compelling, wistful look at the art of selling rare books in the age of Amazon and Instagram, and it reveals that booksellers are often as quirky as the books they sell.
James Cummins doesn’t just sell books: He collects them, and other treasures besides. His warehouses (plural) hold 300,000 of them, he says—along with purses and hats and a piece of the Hindenburg.
Sisters Judith, Adina and Naomi all share ownership of the Argosy bookstore—taking the business over from their father. Their dad got them to take over the family business by discouraging them from working there.
Millennial book expert Rebecca Romney might be the best-known bookseller of them all, thanks to her appearances on the History Channel hit Pawn Stars.
“There’s something inherently funny about a pawn shop in Las Vegas being the bridge to introduce people to rare books and manuscripts,” she admits in the doc. “but that’s the vehicle? Fine, I’ll take it.”
The sellers whine about the massive size and crushing weight of some of their most prized possessions. (Some joke that booksellers shrink over time because of all the heavy tomes they have to carry.) One brags about being one of the few people who’s handled multiple books bound in human skin. We hear about some of the legendary book dealers in the city, and we see how changing tastes are changing the marketplace.
But like a comforting smell of a particularly old book, The Booksellers comes with a whiff of sad nostalgia—a golden age long gone. The sisters who rule Argosy say that when their father ran the business, nearly 400 rare bookstores filled New York City. Now there’s less than 80. Many bemoan the rise of the internet in the business, where a rare volume can be bought with the click or two.
“Collecting is about the hunt, not the object,” grouses dealer David Bergman.
And some wonder whether books themselves may become relics—a product of an earlier time, as useless as gaslights or laser disk players. Do leather-bound books have a home in a world with Kindle? Others strike a more optimistic note, pointing out that it’s the 20-somethings on the subway that are reading real paper-filled books. Only the 40- and 50-year-olds are flipping pages on a tablet.
The Booksellers is perhaps a little too quirky and insider to knock the socks off someone who isn’t a book lover already. This is, after all, a world built on exclusivity and on charms more common in an earlier age.
But for those who remember reading a favorite story under the covers with a flashlight, or who fell in love with a long-dead author in high school or college, or who simply love the feel and heft of a bound-leather book in your hand, The Booksellers offers an invitation to a secret society—one filled with paper and ink and ancient word.
The Booksellers is available to rent via ‘virtual cinema’ in partnership with select independent theaters, you can find theaters and tickets at https://booksellersdocumentary.com/
Written by Paul Asay