Documentary Review: Rare titles are the Holy Grail to “The Booksellers”

 

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We carry around a picture of an antiquarian book dealer or obsessive book collector in our heads.

White. Male. Tweed.

And there isn’t a lot in D.W. Young’s New York-centric “The Booksellers” that tampers with that. There’s tweed, here and there, the odd overly-curled mustache. It’s a very Jewish world, especially when the film digs into the Anglo-American history of this specialty trade.

But there may be a change coming to the business of collectible books, which is a major thesis of Young’s lovely and lush if meandering, bookshelf browse of a movie. Is the sun setting on this esoteric obsession? Or is a big-city hipster-driven revival turning that around?

It starts at the The New York Antiquarian Book Fair at the Park Ave. Armory, wanders into auctions, digs through the history of the hobby, changes in what is “in vogue” with collectors (signed first editions, first editions with perfect dust jackets, etc.), drifts off message with the “ephemera” (posters, toys, things that belonged to authors) and makes its way into the monumental collections of a hand full of America’s most obsessive “women writers” “esoteric occult books” or “Hip Hop History” or “works of imagination” have filled their weighty wall-shelves with.

Fran Lebowitz, that quintessential New Yorker, remembers the famed “Book Row” of Park Ave. bookstores, dozens of them at one time “run by dusty Jewish men who were very irritated if you wanted to buy a book.”

Journalist/author and book-hound Susan Orlean (“The Orchid Thief,” “The Library Book”) talks about books’ meaning, and about cleaning up her notebooks and “ephemera” and passing them on to a college archive.

And book collecting expert Rebecca Romney of TV’s “Pawn Stars” speaks up, after many other older men in the trade lament “the passing of an era” and the “death of the profession” of book-hunting, book selling and book collecting, noting the hipster generation embrace of the printed page and the slow shift away from the “85-15” ratio of males to females in this world.

We see the auction where an anonymous phone bidder bought Leonardo’s “Codex Leicester (Hammer)” book of scientific writings and illustrations for $30 million+ in 1994.

And we scan the covers of leather bound historical volumes, printed on parchment or velum — as well as occult works bound in human skin. The idea of books as “objects” or art, quite aside from their printed pages, has never been presented with more clarity than here.

“The Booksellers” doesn’t take care to ID every talking head we see, and waits until the last half hour to show us the folks who drive this industry — the collectors. It’s still a bibliophile’s delight, a time trip back to bookstores long gone as well as the Argosy and Strand and Imperial, filled with people of the sentiment that “If books disappear, human beings disappear!”

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MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Fran Lebowitz, Susan Orlean, David Bergman, William Reese, Rebecca Romney

Credits: Directed by D.W. Young. A Greenwich Entertainment release.

Running time: 1:39

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