NYFF Review: ‘The Booksellers’

Rating: 3/4

When I was an English student, the death of the book seemed an inevitability. Borders crashed and burned and other Independent bookstores shuttered their windows. The internet came and decimated booksellers and publishers, and the rise of E-books made a career in writing or literature impractical.

Still, worshipers of the book: the “archaic” physical medium—exist in small enclaves. They’re antiquarians, and they congregate at the Park Avenue Armory on the Upper East Side. Viewing them requires a poetic irony: they meet at a armory, a building dating back to the Civil War with a large clock stopped at an impossible time. If time travel existed past the pages of H.G. Wells, The New York International Antiquarian Book Fair would act as a vehicle. D.W. Young’s The Booksellers follows antiquarians and book lovers alike in an engrossing documentary that lovingly demonstrates the important of books within our culture and our evolving relationship to them.

Backtracking: what is an antiquarian? They’re not just any book seller, they deal in only rarities. Want JP Morgan’s copy of Shakespeare’s Third Folio? They’ve got it. Young follows the owners of Argosi (Judith, Naomi, & Adina) The Strand Bookstore, Imperial Fine Books, etc. as they describe how the business has evolved or declined through the decades. Young also researches the art of rare book finding by the likes of A.SW. Rosenbach and Rostenberg and Stern, demonstrating how these pioneering figures saved editions and copies that still furnish our understandings of these works and authors. Nevertheless, the preservationists and dealers’ legacies are at risk because while in the 1950’s there were 368 bookstores in NYC, today there are just 79.

But there’s hope: Independent bookstores are returning. They’re finding a resurgence because of women who have become collectors, showing a passion once only reserved for old white men. Throughout, Susan Orlean and Fran Lebowitz also offer commentary on the state of bookstores and archives.

If The Booksellers could be tightened over its 99 minutes, it comes in scope. For a documentary about those selling these rare finds, too often Young meanders in a non-linear fashion. We jump from one moments parsing through early antiquarians to exploring private libraries to the role of the internet—making the importance of each thread difficult to define. Even so, Young discovers enough nostalgia for any misty-eyed book lover to find every turn an important and ruminative discussion of those spined-paper bodies.

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