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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● Directed by D.W. Young
● Streaming via Cinematheque at Home, wfp.to/nowplaying
● 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.
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.)
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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.
Randall King Reporter
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.
Do not be misled by the comic charm of this film. It's a ghost story, brooded over by the rustling wraiths of bookstores dead and gone.
— Anthony Lane, New Yorker
The Booksellers is a documentary for anyone who can still look at a book and see a dream, a magic teleportation device, an object that contains the world.
— Owen Gleiberman, Variety
Pays warm-hearted tribute to the reading, but also the shopping, the rifling, the obsessing, the complaining, the dreaming, the list-making, the shelf-organizing, and everything else book-lovers love to do.
— Elizabeth Weitzman, TheWrap
The Booksellers shares a few of those stories and a little of that learning. And I have to tell you: It feels really good to be roaming those aisles of bookshelves again, even if it's just through a screen.
— Glenn Whipp, Los Angeles Times
Though it opens with a quote from Susan Sontag invoking Jorge Luis Borges's belief... the film is not about the content, but the container - the tactile, redolent artifact essential to book lovers and sought by collectors.
— Peter Keough, Boston Globe
(A) charming documentary about the book world — or more specifically the book-as-object world, with antiquarian booksellers trying to reinvent themselves and their industry in a digital era.
— Jennifer Szalal, New York Times
Words from bookworms
When it comes to finding and selling books to an appreciative clientele, Winnipeg has its own experts. And they will be chiming in for a live panel discussion on The Booksellers next Saturday, May 2, at 3 p.m. on Facebook Live.
Aimee Peake has been the sole propreitor of Bison Books since 2010 after being mentored by Michael Park of one of Canada's most respected antiquarian bookstores, Greenfield Books.
Ron Robinson is one of the founding partners of McNally-Robinson, learning the trade in the Eaton's book department. Robinson has been haunting the city's used bookstores since he was a lad, looking to augment his collection of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazines.
Bill Fugler grew up in Montreal, where he too frequented second-hand bookstores before getting a job at Econo Livres in Beaconsfield. Like Robinson, he would make pilgrimages to the Strand bookstore in New York. He eventually opened the Neighbourhood Bookstore and Cafe on Westminster Avenue, which he ran for 13 years.
Log onto the discussion at https://www.facebook.com/wfgcinematheque