Thursday 2 July 2020

The old curiosity shop: "The Booksellers"

Opening to glowing reviews in the US shortly before lockdown put every film's commercial chances on hold, The Booksellers is a funny, eccentric documentary about a funny, eccentric world - New York's antiquarian and rare books trade. It's the sort of movie that you can imagine being a sleeper hit at any point over the past four decades, a study of a world so inherently niche that, as with many bricks-and-mortar bookstores, it can't help but provide a measure of escape from the woes of this world. Here are passionate, booksmart people giving up anecdotes to the accompaniment of a light jazz score; if this week's VOD release does nothing for the film's chances, the producers could always give it away with a New Yorker or London Review of Books subscription. Though the opening credits linger on the texture of books themselves - the battered covers, the bent spines, the yellowing pages - the bulk of the movie is turned over, as the title suggests, to those hardy souls who buy and sell such precious texts, thereby staving off the developers circling their establishments. Inevitably, some of those featured are the tweedy old gents of bookselling legend, men who'd scoff at you if you came in asking for Chris Moyles' "The Gospel According to Chris Moyles". Yet there are reasons this trade has survived and even flourished in the Amazon age. One is that new booksellers keep popping up: it's a passion that cannot be doused. Some of these are (gasp) women, like the three daughters who inherited their father's store, or the Asian-American Bibi Mohamed, representing booksellers of colour. From their tattoos, a couple of his other subjects strongly give the impression of being 40 or under. Madness; heresy. Imagine being under 40, and interested in the printed word.

The point the film meanders towards is that it takes all sorts, but chiefly the kind of oddballs you wouldn't find managing a Barnes & Noble, a small army of Quixotes, ready and willing to travel to the ends of the earth (or spend hours browsing the World Wide Web) to keep their clientele happy. Those bric-a-brac personalities soon begin to feed back into the filmmaking. Like the stores it sets up in, The Booksellers is a bit of a jumble; you have to rummage through it. In quick time, Young sets before us a chapter on how the Internet has changed everything and changed very little in these small, cluttered corners of the world; an interview with Susan Orlean that carries us into the adjacent field of authorial archiving; a demonstration of how to cover old books with mylar. Its curiosity is boundless, which proves a thematic strength and an editorial liability. You'd have to be more interested in high finance than I am to get much out of the segment on book auctions, though I dare you not to be fascinated by the library some well-heeled Connecticut aesthete has modelled on an M.C. Escher etching. (More precisely, M.C. Escher's biggest hit: "U Can't Rent This".) In places, it's as if Young simply got distracted by everything his collector-subjects set before him: the vintage toys, the Masonic throne, the Chairman Mao memorabilia. As those same subjects testify, once you set out down this path, it's easy to get carried away - and forget what you first came in for. The film is at its strongest whenever it returns to those books - poring over their cover art, inscriptions, the dustjacket biographies - and, through them, starts to outline a philosophy that is particular in two senses of the word. As one of the booksellers puts it, crystallising a whole way of life while taking stock: "Some books look as if they've been run over by a truck - but it has to be the right truck."

The Booksellers is now streaming via Curzon and Amazon Prime.

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