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A CurtainUp Streaming Feature
Movie About an Esoteric Branch of the Book World That's Deliciously Entertaining For One and All
By Elyse Sommer
As I always perused what was on shelves in homes of people I visited, I now found myself trying to see what these reporters — many of whom have written books themselves — were reading. I thus read Ron Chernow's biography of Ulysses S. Grant after seeing it on PBS Newshour anchor Judy Woodruff's shelf.
While my feature writing since the the lockdown has been focused on my onscreen theater outings, reading has remained critical to my passing the long, stay-at-home days productively. After all, given my advanced age, books were my first entertainment and escape into another world. Unsurprisingly the world of the printed word also became my work world. Consequently, I remain what you might call a bookish person.
No wonder I loved The Booksellers!
But you don't have to be bookish to be charmed by this documentary film about the antiquarian book business that's presented from the point of view of its sellers and collectors. It's a book about a business that, like so many, has been changed forever by trends in buying habits. But it's such a rare sort of specialty to most of us that meeting its practioners and enthusiasts is like a trip into a vaguely exotic world that will keep you happily glued in front of whatever screen you're watching.
Best of all, the time you spend streaming won't make you sad because you can't see it in a theater. Nor will it have you scratching your head about why a book about books wasn't done as a book.
As directed, edited and co-edited by D. W. Young, and phtographed by David Ullman, The Booksellers is a visual treat that no amount of book illustrations could achieve. The interviews with the various booksellers and collectors are supplemented with narration by associate producer Posey Parker. In short, you couldn't want for anything nearly as lively and effectively integrated on either page or stage.
To tally up this unusual and delightful mashup of the film's assets in its most fitting lingo: The Booksellers is as entertaining as any page-turner. It's remarkable enlightening. Yes, it's scholarly — but with plenty of light touches.
The many memorable quotes come from notable historic figure as well as living celebrities like Fran Lebowitz, Susan Orlean, Gay Talese, Maurice Sendak. Not to be overlooked, of course, are those titular and also very much alive antiquarians and collecters themselves— some of whom look like sketches that stepped out of one of the wonderfully illustrated pages of a Dickens novel.
Many of the people we meet were born into the antiquarian trade,. My favorites among these are the sisters still ensconced in the Argosy Book Store on East 59th Street. When I was writing a book about creative crochet, I used to stop at a then busy upstairs yarn studio on the same block, and then indulge my own collecting bug by stopping in at the Argosy to check out available needlework books. The sisters who joined their father in his historic store each carved out special niches for themselves. Not every antiquarian was as successfully productive.
Fran Leibowitz, one of the film's most verbal celebrity commentators wrily describes the once bookllined Fourth Avenue she frequemted for years as being run by "grumpy felines who don't want to sell you anything because they just want to stand \there and read all day." If anything left this writer grumpy about this film it's that the diredtor and his team simply assumed people like Leibowitz are well known enough to be identified by all viewers. Not so! Captions would have been most welcome.
The only Fourth Avenue survivor, The Strand, is another family enterprise. But this is a thoroughly NOW story so the creative team has shown how some sellers and collectors have coped with the changes wrought by Amazon and the internet. One of the most compelling scenes puts the viewer into a seat at an auction conducted via phone, shades of a an actual such sale of a Da Vinci manuscript that fetched $28 million,
To round out why I recommend this as a wonderful feel good, worthwhile hour and forty minutes, there are also some eyepopping visits to extraordinary private collections. I feel safe to promise that you'll probably share all these people's conviction that a book is more than a book to read — but a slice of human history. Hopefully, the pandemic's impact will not interrupt a recent resurgence of independent book stores embraced by those young enough to have learned to read on a tablet.
Postscript: Actually, The Book Wars, an older documentary about booksellers, is still available at Amazon. No elegant interiors and beautiful illustrations in this as the vendors here peddle their wares in the streets of lower Manhattan. And yet, while less uplifting and visually lovely, their narration reveals that they too find the book something special and very essential to human history.
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