Shelf love: Go behind the scenes with ‘The Booksellers’

( Unrated ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

Why We Wrote This

A new documentary suggests that books are not only an escape, but also a way of being fully human. Monitor film critic Peter Rainer says the basic urge they satisfy will never age. 

Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment
Argosy Book Store owners and sisters Adina Cohen (left), Judith Lowry (center), and Naomi Hample are interviewed at the New York store in the documentary “The Booksellers,” directed by D.W. Young.

“The Booksellers” is a documentary for people who treasure the sheer look and feel of books. It is for anyone who has ever spent way too much time in used and rare bookstores teetering on tall ladders or squeezing through narrow, tome-filled aisles in search of that most precious of commodities: the book you didn’t know you needed until you found it – or, to be more precise, it found you. 

As a proud member of this diminishing tribe of obsessives, I am grateful there exists a film featuring my spiritual kinfolk, even though it is fairly New York-centric and much more about fanatic book dealers than fanatic book buyers. (It turns out, in the used and antiquarian book world, there’s not much of a difference.) Although he doesn’t identify some of them on screen, director D.W. Young has chosen his camera subjects carefully, almost lovingly: He never makes fun of them. He’s smart enough to recognize that the most self-aware among them are more than capable of poking fun at themselves. 

Take Dave Bergman, for instance, a rare book dealer whose apartment apparently serves as the holding cell for his wares. He specializes in oversized books, some of which, like a volume on the catacombs of Rome, are so heavy that he hasn’t reshelved them in decades. He shows off a 1907 book on woolly mammoths that contains, as a bonus, a packet of woolly mammoth hair (presumably authenticated). A note of sly self-deprecation runs through his litany, but you can also tell that these books, and the worlds they have opened to him, are his lifeblood. 

The same is true of rare book and ephemera collector Michael Zinman, celebrated in a 2001 New Yorker profile as “The Book Eater.” (His first purchase, at age 21 in 1958, was a three-volume octavo edition of Audubon’s “Quadrupeds of North America.”) He is interviewed at home, practically walled in by books, and seems ineffably happy.

I confess that I am much more of a used book person than a rare book or first editions maven. It’s not just that the latter are prohibitively expensive. To take the most sky-high example, as we see in the documentary, the Leonardo da Vinci sketchbook known as the Hammer Codex sold at auction to Bill Gates for $30.8 million. A first edition of the first James Bond novel, “Casino Royale,” went for $150,000. If the text is what truly matters, spending many thousands of dollars on a first edition likely does little but enhance the coffers of the dealer. I wonder how many of these wealthy collectors actually read their books. 

“The Booksellers” is more congenial, at least for me, when it showcases some of New York’s famed bookshops and their owners. The Argosy Book Store is a six-story emporium of wonders where I have spent quality time going bleary-eyed in the stacks. We hear from founder Louis Cohen’s three daughters, Judith Lowry, Naomi Hample, and Adina Cohen, who run the store. They make the vital point that the Argosy, established in 1925, survives today where so many others did not because the building is family-owned. The same is true of New York’s fabled Strand Book Store, which is run by its founder’s granddaughter. The Strand is in a section of the city once known as Book Row. Of the 48 stores in the area’s heyday, only the Strand survives.

As many of those interviewed can attest, the internet has greatly accelerated the demise of this world. Humorist Fran Lebowitz puts it succinctly: “You know what they used to call independent bookstores? Bookstores.”

So it was especially pleasing to hear from Rebecca Romney, a chipper, convincingly upbeat book dealer who often appears on “Pawn Stars.” She discounts the doomsday scenarios, and I agree. The movie opens by saying that books are not just an escape; they are a way of being fully human. I’m confident the basic urge they satisfy will never age.

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