September 25, 2020  (Web Review)

The Booksellers

(2019) 99 min. DVD: $19.95. Kino Lorber (avail from most distributors). Closed captioned.

Reviewer rating: 3.0/4

Narrated by Parker Posey, filmmaker D.W. Young’s love letter documentary focuses on the rarefied world of antiquarian book sellers in New York City. No longer exclusively a group of “little, dusty, Jewish men” as writer Fran Lebowitz notes, the profession is still 85% male but the trade has attracted some younger people, including women. Some came into the job by inheritance, such as Judith, Naomi, and Adina, three sisters who now run their father’s six-floor Argosy Book Store. Many of the subjects display their rare books at the Antiquarian Book Fair held in the Park Avenue Armory (author Gay Talese recalls playing tennis in the building in earlier days). While the booksellers’ faith in their profession falls along a spectrum of “beginning of the end of the book” to “death of the book is highly overrated,” all agree that the business has changed drastically in recent decades due to the global digital landscape (where potential buyers can instantly find what they are looking for and negotiate prices) and the rise of such devices as the spine-shuddering Amazon Kindle (as one interviewee wistfully observes, “books have had a 550-year run”). Full of details that will be of interest to bibliophiles, including the intricacies of dust jacket assessment (“good” actually means pretty bad), the worth of signed editions—not much if to a particular individual, but valuable if the recipient is famous, in which case it becomes an “association copy”—and examples of lovely book bindings such as jewels, gold, and in the case of Hans Holbein’s 1538 classic Dance of Death, human skin. Some will be frustrated by the lack of identification of many of the speakers here, although book lovers will recognize Talese, Lebowitz, and Susan Orlean (whose most recent offering, The Library Book, pays tribute to librarians). But bibliophiles are the real audience here anyway, especially since The Booksellers lacks dramatic visuals or a quirky sensibility that might engage general viewers. The bon mots are occasional and mostly supplied by Lebowitz. Fun fact: the largest sale of a book or manuscript was Leonardo da Vinci’s Hammer Codex, scooped up by Bill Gates for about $30 million. Extras include bonus scenes. Recommended. Aud: C, P. (R. Pitman)