September 18, 2020

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Used bookshops deliver musty see viewing

Meandering tale showcases New York's merchants of high-end, rare books

Blackletter Films</p><p>Author and bibliophile Fran Lebowitz</p>

Blackletter Films

Author and bibliophile Fran Lebowitz

With the possible exceptions of a French bakery or a German deli, no smell is quite so evocative of a place as the smell of old books on the shelves of a used bookstore.


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The Booksellers

● Directed by D.W. Young

● Streaming via Cinematheque at Home,

● 99 minutes

★★★1/2 stars out of five

The Booksellers, a documentary by D.W. Young, is not about any old bookstore, of course. It focuses primarily on the comparatively high-end marketplace in rare books, mostly in New York City.

For a Smell-o-Rama treat, it is recommended that you watch it while sniffing frequently at the oldest, mouldiest volume on your property for maximum sensory engulfment.

Blackletter Films</p><p>The Argosy Book Store is run by three sisters (from left): Adina Cohen, Naomi Hample and Judith Lowry.</p></p>

Blackletter Films

The Argosy Book Store is run by three sisters (from left): Adina Cohen, Naomi Hample and Judith Lowry.

Having a cat wander around wouldn’t hurt.

The truth is that the film could use a bit of a bump, sensation-wise. Expert witness/author Fran Lebowitz talking about prowling bookstores is all very delightful, but the gal is at risk of getting spread thin in a movie with no discernible narrative thread.

The booksellers themselves are the stars, of course, although author Gay Talese gets prominent billing. He is in the film for about 45 seconds, captured browsing the New York International Antiquarian Book Fair at the Park Avenue Armory. Naturally, Talese knows all about the history of the place.

The less-flashy merchants are mostly the kind of people for whom the term "bookish" was invented. Some, like the three sisters who run Argosy Books on 59th Street, fell into the career as a means of continuing in a beloved family business. Others found themselves enchanted by landmarks such as the Strand Bookstore in the East Village, seduced by the literary multiverse therein.

Lebowitz has a funny memory of going into one such store and annoying the proprietor by trying to buy a book. It’s as if many booksellers went into the business wanting to be left alone. (One can’t help feeling the filmmaker missed an opportunity to show a clip from The Twilight Zone episode in which Burgess Meredith greets the apocalypse as the ultimate opportunity to catch up on his reading.)

Blackletter Films</p><p>Jim Cummins (left), a consummate bookseller, owns more than 400,000 books.</p>

Blackletter Films

Jim Cummins (left), a consummate bookseller, owns more than 400,000 books.

The movie clips the documentary does include show the profession as either romanticized (84 Charing Cross Road) or exoticized (The Ninth Gate). It’s curious the film doesn’t mention You’ve Got Mail, which depicted a New York-based romance/competition between an indie bookshop owner and a big-box book retailer (Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, respectively). That movie also featured Parker Posey, who is an executive producer on this film, and also supplies some narration, quoting author Susan Sontag, who wrote that books "are a way of being fully human."

Here, the romance of the business is implicit. The cast of booksellers range from eccentrics — one dealer talks a little too affectionately about handling books bound in human skin — to esthetes, to streetwise hustlers just trying to make a buck. The film makes a point of showcasing women who have historically always been in the business, fighting the good fight while attention was given to the old guys with a predilection for tweed. One of the most recognizable booksellers in the film’s catalogue is Rebecca Romney, the source of bibliophile wisdom on the reality series Pawn Stars.

If an overall structure is lacking, it can be forgiven. Perhaps Young is trying to replicate the random experience of wandering through an old bookstore and finding diversions and delights where one may.

The film is available via Cinematheque at Home, which makes for a poignant reminder of the cherished two-fer experience of hitting both Cinematheque and the Red River Book Store while in the Exchange District. May that experience come again.

Twitter: @FreepKing

Blackletter Films</p><p>Dave Bergman, the “smallest dealer with the biggest books,” is featured in D.W. Young’s doc about high-end New York booksellers.</p>

Blackletter Films

Dave Bergman, the “smallest dealer with the biggest books,” is featured in D.W. Young’s doc about high-end New York booksellers.

Randall King

Randall King

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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