I remember the moment I almost emptied my bank account at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair. The object of temptation: a poster advertising the reopening of the New St. Mark’s Baths, the notorious gay bathhouse that was ultimately shut down by Ed Koch during the 1980s AIDS scare. Sci-fi illustrator Boris Vallejo’s artwork depicted a He-Man type riding a horned beast, flanked by ripped space aliens. It was like a Miles Davis cover if Bitches Brew was an advertisement for pre-Giuliani orgy dens, and I had to have it.
That type of covetousness is examined in D.W. Young’s The Booksellers, which premiered last night at the New York Film Festival. The documentary starts in the cavernous drill hall of the Park Avenue Armory, site of the Antiquarian Book Fair, and zeroes in on some of the characters who haul their milk crates there every year, following them to the apartments where they keep their enviable private libraries and the bookstores where you can share in their obsessions.
This is a meandering documentary that tries to capture the eccentricities of these obsessive collectors while also showing off some of their prized possessions, while also touching on the history of bookselling (which, of course, hasn’t always been welcoming to women and minorities), while also sharing some tricks of the trade, while also engaging in the usual lamentations about the state of the business.
“Everything is under this cloud of uncertainty,” Young said last night during a q&a at Walter Reade Theater, noting a general anxiety among his subjects.
Needless to say, there are the requisite archival photos of once-thriving Book Row on Broadway, where Strand is the sole surivivor. Nancy Bass Wyden, the shop’s owner, notes that in the 1950s there were 368 bookstores in the city; now she counts 79.
Yes, you can expect to see a man in a waxed handlebar mustache hold forth about the perils of the Kindle. And his isn’t the only pocket handkerchief in the film. One of the top intellectual dandies, Gay Talese, makes an appearance as a talking head along with other bibliophiles like Fran Lebowitz and Susan Orlean.
But you don’t need anyone to tell you about the State of the Book. We already know that beloved bookstores like Skyline— whose owner does a post-mortem here, sharing a photo of Allen Ginsberg browsing his shelves — are closing. (Although it’s also noted that plenty of edgy, artsy indie bookstores— like Codex, Printed Matter, Mast Books—have recently opened.) And you can imagine how sites like eBay have made “rare” books much easier to find, driving down their value. “All of a sudden all of those $50, $75, $100, $125 books became $20, $25, $30 books,” laments one bookseller.
This is the sort of perpetual kvetching you’ll overhear among embattled antiques dealers as you stroll through the Brimfield Flea Market. But The Booksellers has just enough book and library porn to keep you from walking out of the theater and returning to your Abebooks.com search for old issues of Spy magazine (if you have the “Jerks,” “Imposters,” or “Brats” issues from 1986, call me.) There’s the guy who paid $200,000 for the 1827 first edition of Poe’s Tamerlane after someone found it for $15 in a junk shop. There’s the bound edition of Hans Holbein’s The Dance of Death ornamented with a skull made from actual bone and teeth (some people don’t want to go near it; others ask, “Can I touch it?”). There’s the original manuscript of Alice in Wonderland, sold for 15,400 pounds by Alice Liddell, who inspired the tale as a 10-year-old.
Booksellers are portrayed here as keepers of the flame and sometimes even makers of history (as when rare book dealers Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern discovered Louisa May Alcott’s secret pulp novels), but also as obsessive compulsives who will spend years scouring the earth for a rare edition only to stick it on a shelf and forget all about it. There’s a bittersweet moment when one digger, as they’re called in the record collecting biz, rummages through a presumably deceased couple’s apartment. You can feel the thrill of the hunt as he sorts through piles of their old books, but then you remember that his own collection might one day suffer this somber fate. I’m sure there are bon mots about the cycle of life I could quote here, but I don’t have my personal library at hand. If only there was a way to search for such a quote with a computer…
In the end, The Booksellers takes on the world of books from so many angles that it feels a little scattered; watching it felt a little like browsing a massive bookstore like midtown’s Argosy, whose three sister owners are featured here, when there’s only half an hour left till closing. You can crack several fascinating books and scan a few passages, but forget about sinking into a couch and spending the afternoon with one. I found myself wishing Young had either chosen one particular subject— the way Jay Myself saw the mania of collecting through the fascinating prism of photographer Jay Maisel’s Bowery bauble repository— or perhaps done this as an episodic television show. (Is there enough interest in booksellers to merit a tv show? That questions seems to answer itself. Then again, Pawn Stars does have a rare book specialist, and, not surprisingly, she offers some optimism about the business here in the documentary.)
I don’t mean to quibble. The Booksellers has plenty of joy to offer those who get off on time-lapse footage of mylar protective covers being cut to size. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to watch that scene again…