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The Booksellers

A behind-the-scenes look at the New York rare book world.

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The Booksellers is a documentary for people who treasure the sheer look and feel of books. It is for anyone who has ever spent way too much time in used and rare bookstores teetering on tall ladders or squeezing through narrow, tome-filled aisles in search of that most precious of commodities: the book you didn’t know you needed until you found it – or, to be more precise, it found you. 

As a proud member of this diminishing tribe of obsessives, I am grateful there exists a film featuring my spiritual kinfolk, even though it is fairly New York-centric and much more about fanatic book dealers than fanatic book buyers. (It turns out, in the used and antiquarian book world, there’s not much of a difference.) Although he doesn’t identify some of them on screen, director D.W. Young has chosen his subjects carefully, almost lovingly: He never makes fun of them. He’s smart enough to recognize that many of them are more than capable of poking fun at themselves. 

I confess that I am much more of a used book person than a rare book or first editions maven. If the text is what truly matters, spending many thousands of dollars on a first edition likely does little but enhance the coffers of the dealer. I wonder how many of these wealthy collectors actually read their books. 

The Booksellers is more congenial, at least for me, when it showcases some of New York’s famed bookshops and their owners. The Argosy Book Store is a six-story emporium of wonders where founder Louis Cohen’s three daughters run the store. They make the vital point that the Argosy, established in 1925, survives today in part because the building is family-owned. The same is true of New York’s fabled Strand Book Store, which is run by its founder’s granddaughter. The Strand is in a section of the city once known as Book Row. Of the 48 stores in the area’s heyday, only the Strand survives.

As many of those interviewed can attest, the internet has greatly accelerated the demise of this world. Humorist Fran Lebowitz puts it succinctly: “You know what they used to call independent bookstores? Bookstores.”

So it was especially pleasing to hear from Rebecca Romney, a chipper, convincingly upbeat book dealer who often appears on “Pawn Stars.” She discounts the doomsday scenarios, and I agree. The movie opens by saying that books are not just an escape; they are a way of being fully human. I’m confident the basic urge they satisfy will never age.

– Peter Rainer, Christian Science Monitor

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