The author Stephen King once remarked that books are a “uniquely portable magic,” and in J.W. Young’s poignant and colorful documentary “The Booksellers” we are taken into the world of rare books, those who sell them as a commodity and those who exclusively read and treasure them.
According to the film, the most notable rare book dealer in the English speaking realm until the mid-1950s was A.S.W. Rosenbach. Then came Rostenberg and Stern, two female partners in the male dominated field who brought back literary troves from the far reaches and are credited for bringing Louisa May Alcott’s domestic secrets to life.
The documentary profiles many eccentric personalities of the book world. There is Henry Wessells, editor of AB Bookman’s Weekly. He is a science fiction writer who believes that Mary Shelley is the well-spring of speculative fiction. For Wessells, sci-fi is akin to a mushroom-hatted forest with arteries to new ways of thinking, a perpetually renewable force.
Following this path, Jay Walker appears in his private Library of the Human Imagination. The library is like an immense galleon, with books organized according to height, not by title, and is an homage to M.C. Escher with its maze-like stairs. Walker hopes to digitally scan each book in three dimensions, making every page available to all. Walker is a kind of Bruce Wayne character. There is also Justin Schiller, an L. Frank Baum fan who, at 12, became the youngest lender to Columbia University during their Baum Centenary.
The film delicately exposes the now imperiled act of reading from a tangible page made of paper or vellum and also by extension, the act of reading itself.
Books are very personal. To some of us, including Fran Lebowitz, who appears on film, books are very like people, as intimate as a hand and possessing their own smell, an inky perfume. The sight of a book thrown away for Lebowitz (and for any sensitive person) is one of horror, as if seeing a severed head in the trash. In the age of the smartphone our attentions are being accelerated and compressed. The activity of reading, of touching the printed page, an act of intimacy, is vanishing.
The internet has made books accessible and abundant but the thrill of the hunt has been trivialized. For most rare booksellers the momentum of the chase is everything. The seeking of the book and the possibilities of possession or mischance is what is important.
All of the wondrous bookshops of New York City are mentioned here, from the Strand to the beloved Gotham Bookmart, a personal favorite of mine.
The film emphasizes that it is not that bookshops are terminally disappearing but that the sharing of books as heartfelt extensions of ourselves is becoming less evident. The internet is ushering in a projected virus of light, that gradually takes away the significance of a book in hand. This is frightening.
The highest compliment I can give to “The Booksellers” is that it allows you to see books not as mere things but as vehicles of the spirit. Better yet, you will suddenly pine for the textured caress of a physical book, a two sectioned palm that remains open to you in its creases.
“The Booksellers” is part of the Tropic’s Virtual Cinematheque Series. Get tickets here and support the Tropic!
Write Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org