Thursday, May 30, 2024

‘The Booksellers’ is Worth the Appraisal

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I love books. But I’m not a collector, nor do I aspire to be one, unlike the people interviewed in the documentary The Booksellers. Yet, I understand them at a bone-deep spiritual level. 

D.W. Young’s documentary looks at the rare books market and how it has changed or needs to change. If that last sentence made you groan in disgust then Young’s movie is probably not for you. But if you are one of those people who walks into a bookstore and find themselves spending hours culling through stacks of books in search of nothing in particular, you’ll know it when you see it, then you’ll likely have a pretty good time. 

The Booksellers is not particularly groundbreaking in terms of how it presents itself. Essentially the documentary is a series of talking heads. But when the heads are the likes of Fran Lebowitz, I find myself perfectly okay with the rote presentation. 

Young begins by telling us about the strange and mercurial individuals who sell rare books while at the same time talking about the history of books. How they have remained, almost stubbornly so, a physical form of media for thousands of years. But the advent of technology threatens not only the rare bookseller market but the book itself, or so they say. Both the personalities and the idea itself is almost wholly representative of rich white men who can both afford to buy and sell antique literature or afford the space to house their sprawling literary archives.  

Right about the time I was beginning to write The Booksellers off as too far up its own ass, it makes the above point for me. Young is aware of the elitism inherent not just in rare books but in regard to literature in general. Slowly the old white talking heads begin to vanish and are replaced with voices of younger, non-white folks, or women. It’s here where the discussion becomes interesting. 

For starters, so much of the argument made in the early moments of The Booksellers is how rare book collecting is a part of preserving our history and culture. But once the voices begin to change, they start pushing back against the narrative. Whose history and whose culture are we preserving? 

The Booksellers slyly but not quietly begins to expose the classism and racism baked into the idea of rare book collecting. Collecting rare books requires a certain amount of wealth, the proper way to store said collectibles requires even more wealth, the funds to continue said cycle requires more wealth on top of that and so on and so on. Young talks to a young Black woman, Syreeta Gates, who discovers that most of Hip-Hop’s history has yet to be digitized.

There are no digital archives for XXL, The Source, or Vibe. She discovers this because, as a recently promoted Editor-In-Chief herself, she decided she should read others and to her dismay found the likes of Dream Hampton absent from Google’s database archive. Herein lies the key to The Booksellers, it is not about rare book collectors.

It is about the notion of archiving written works and who gets to be preserved and who does the preservation. Gates discovered that a large portion of Hip-Hop history was still only available on paper, in other words, magazines. Interviews with towering artists of their times lost because no one thought Hip-Hop would be around forty years from when it began because white supremacy is a hell of a drug. “Like thinking about what new content can be created so that the generations that were born when Biggie Smalls died now has, like, context around why he was important, why he was the king of New York, et cetera.” 

But even taking the argument that “Hip-Hop is a fad” argument in good faith, it suggests shallow thinking. Fads and trends are important because they show us what we valued at a particular time. At the very least they represent a way of exploring and studying what was going on in the cultural zeitgeist at the time. 

The point Young makes is that archives are important but equally, if not more so, are the people curating the archives. He talks to Caroline Schimmel, who only collects and archives work by women. She makes sure women’s voices, no matter how popular, are preserved and given life and a space to exist. “And these are all women who were important and their stories were important, but they’ve been ignored.” 

Beyond attitudes towards gender, race, sexuality, and class, Young discovers a gulf in attitudes between generations on the fate of books and the collectors’ market. The older generation believes the rare book market, indeed, books themselves, will have vanished in the next few years. They blame eBooks and that tried and true boogeyman of the present: Millennials. People don’t read books anymore, they say, or if they do it’s on the internet and it’s in short bursts. The notion that how we read and process information is a fascinating one and not necessarily a signpost of a culture on its last leg before Doomsday. 

Things change. Records gave way to CDs which gave way to mp3 files which have given way to, well records and CDs, again. Kevin Young, the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, rebukes this generational terror that books may one day vanish. “As much as this idea that books are dying or they are somehow crumbling which is, of course, not true, try to open a file from your computer seven years ago. It’s a hit or miss proposition.” 

One collector, Laura Minor, adds, “It’s not clear to me that the codex has lost its magic to people. We don’t really have trouble selling books. I think the death of the book is highly overrated.” Lebowitz agrees, “I go on the subway a lot and the people that I see reading books, actual books on the subways are mostly in their twenties. This is one of the few encouraging things you will ever see on a subway.”  

Minor’s partner, Rebecca Romney laughs at the skepticism of her elders. “They’re saying ‘I don’t know what you’re going to do?’ and I’m like ‘I have so many ideas.” 

The Booksellers critiques the old vanguard of rare book collectors but never really outright calls them out. Young merely juxtaposes the old with the new and lets them speak for themselves. In the midst of all this, Young also gives us a guided tour through a part of New York City, 4th Avenue, that has vanished. At one time the street was home to a multitude of bookshops that have all but gone out of business or merely were bought out. 

I lived in New York City for two years and I have to say, of all the cities I’ve lived in New York had the most incredible access to books that I have ever seen. Forget bookstores, over by Washington Square there is a veritable city of people with card tables brimming with used books, common and rare, tattered and pristine, all for sale from a few cents to a few dollars. Between those tables and getting lost in that grand old bookstore, The Strand, with its four miles of books, and the awesomeness of the New York City Public Library, I have never quite found an equal to that city’s bountiful collection of the written word. It’s a miracle in and of itself. 

In a way, The Booksellers is less about rare books and more a love letter to a city and its very intimate and peculiar relationship with books.  

Young takes us inside many private collections and libraries. One of them being the infamous private library of Jay S. Walker, a sight that never fails to leave me gasping. Every time I see it I feel as if I’m stepping into a room of the Doctor’s T.A.R.D.I.S. If you’re the type of person who feels compelled to spend hours perusing through row upon row of books merely curious as to what they have, in search of nothing while in search of something, then The Booksellers is a documentary for you. 

The Booksellers is at its best when it follows esoteric avenues of thought. Discussions about the importance of books, how we relate to both the story and the physical thing which is the book itself, and how we gather and disseminate knowledge. Young offers the staple of grumpy eccentric old white men saying the Halcyon days of books collecting and reading are gone. But then he offers up a rebuttal from a wide array of happy smiling young women and men scratching their heads at that generation’s pessimism. The book isn’t going anywhere, but the old booksellers are. A new world is emerging. One where anyone can buy books and collect them, and therein lies the true root of their terror.  

 Image courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

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