Antiquarian books. It gets the blood boiling, that phrase. Now add some ‘rare’ to the equation. Molten magma. Is this the thought that got director D.W. Young invested in creating a film about booksellers—the women and men of the world who wheel and deal rare antiquarian books? Unknown, but it’s enough to draw the attention of one’s inner bargain hunter or dumpster diver, a persona present in a great many psyches out there. The treasure hunter. The gold miner or forty-niner. Then too, bibliophiles will find the premise intriguing enough to board this reading rainbow straight to its leather-bound pot of rare gold. Be warned though, while utterly fascinating, The Booksellers is no Antiques Roadshow, no Pawn Stars, no American Pickers.
Director: D.W. Young
Release Date: March 6, 2020
Young’s The Booksellers is a cerebral and broad tackling of the world of antiquarian bookselling. This is a day spent with dealers who seek those ultra-rare texts that make Christie’s auction block hard. It’s an interview with collectors who pursue across genre and those with specific locution be it written by women or conflict born. It’s a prospectus on the industry as a whole, as it was, as it is, and as it may be.
It is not the euphoric high of finding a volume for five dollars that turns out to be worth a million. This is not The Booksellers. Sure, some of the portrayed dealers are professed hunters, some profess to love the hunt more than the trade, and some even remark on a memorable find or two. There is even a bit of auction history in which a collection of scientific writings by Leonardo da Vinci, known as the Codex Leicester sold for $30,802,500 in 1994—the record for a book sold at auction. The film is more about the humans behind the books, those driving the trade these days. And while it professes to be an international cast, it seems to mostly be centered in New York and on New York dealers. There’s plenty of exposition on the history of bookselling, from the dwindling number of book shops in New York, to the percentage of women booksellers in the trade (a percentage stuck at a constant 15% , apparently).
Young’s narrative is driven by interview. This is not an investigative documentary. The Booksellers is just that, the men and women who sell rare books. There are collectors and a few curators, too. It’s their thoughts that coalesce into this treatise on bookselling and books in general. This is where it gets too broad and loses focus. By focusing his camera and microphone on so many colorful individuals from the trade, Young allows many narrative voices to dwarf his own, or to subsume his own.
Instead of a single directorial narrative, we’re offered a crowd of voices, those disparaging technology and its effects on selling books and others offering hope in the face of despair. We see some who find the trade all but unsatisfying excluding those rare moments when diligence, preparedness, and luck deliver the rarest of tomes to their hands and we see others who find the calling near divine, akin to playing professional sports. We even have time for insightful allusions and clever anecdotes, like when one dealer details how they’ve sold two books bound in human skin. That’s right folks, the Necronomicon exists!
But what Young lacks in willingness to deliver narrative in lieu of documentation he more than makes up for in editorial skill and a cinematographer’s eye and attention to detail. Books are literally put on a pedestal here, with those torn and damaged given the glamor treatment like any other. The weaving of archival photography with interviews and lovingly captured mise en scenès of book collections and books alike is captivating. These are glimpses into the private collections of master collectors as rare as some of these books, and that alone is perhaps worth the cost of admission.
If you’re a lover of the written word, you’ll no doubt find the film more than charming, but don’t expect to find kindrid spirits here. The men and women who know all the ins and outs of the business seem to be in it because of a profound love for books, whether they were born into it (“nepotism” and multigenerational bookselling abounds), or not. I say seems, because oftentimes, it’s unclear what their true motivations are. For some, it’s the act of collecting the books as much as selling them. For others, it’s the acquisition, after which they’re happy to give the book up to the next in queue. And for others still, it’s more nebulous, or at least that’s the conclusion drawn.
When one collector speaks to the physical mass of owning 30,000 books and how another collector had to spend $1.5M to structurally reinforce his apartment to install his bookshelves and his collection, no one asks, but have you read them? No one asks, how many of them have you read? … which seems the obvious line of thought and question to the statement that collectors have a deeply personal connection to their books. There is little exposition on the merits of writing—more on reading—or the habit of reading—that is the thing that drives book sales in general.
Perhaps another collector puts it best when he states that the joy of owning the book is the act of owning itself: the reality that your owning of a thing prevents another from owning said thing. Your gain is literally their lost. Then too, there are some collecting collections. One, a collection on imagination, a term as expansive and all-encompassing as his organizational system of randomly sorted by height and size allocation on his impressive shelving system. For another, it’s an attempt to document women of merit not only in letters, but deeds, in America: to collect their work and the non-written artifacts that accompany them (like Annie Oakley’s gloves).
Not by coincidence, the 60th Anniversary New York International Antiquarian Book Fair is taking place this weekend (where there’s little doubt a few of these characters will be manning a booth or wandering the displays in their finest tweed). If nothing else, the film may inspire you to pay a visit to this book fair, or another, or perhaps just to stop at the odd roadside garage sale or thrift shop to see if they have a book that catches your eye or promises untold riches in return.