The Booksellers poster 2019

by Geoffrey Churchman

Although it’s often not the case with those who sell new books, one thing you can be sure of with a second hand/antiquarian bookseller is that they have a keen interest in and good knowledge of books.

This 99-minute documentary from the New York Film Festival of the world of those who trade in rare books (mostly in New York, but a few elsewhere) will appeal to bibliophiles, and those who wonder why people become bibliophiles.  As one myself and someone who made a living out of creating books in the publishing industry for some 30 years, it confirms a lot of what I already knew, but I still gained insights from this enjoyable behind the scenes look at the specialist retailers of New York.

There are two separate markets for books — one being those who want them for their respository of knowledge and creativity, the other being those who collect books as objects.  They aren’t mutually exclusive of course, but the primary customers for rare books are in the second category.  Dealers are there to earn a living, but you wonder how much they are avid collectors and compete with their customers by keeping a lot of what they acquire.

Opening scenes are of the many stands in the New York Antiquarian Book Fair in a suitable character-full building from a past age. Also in a past age, bookstores lined 4th Avenue in an area known as “Book Row.” Today there is only one of them left: The Strand, which was founded in 1929.  The oldest remaining NYC bookstore is the Argosy on East 59th Street, operated by the three daughters of Louis Cohen who opened the store in 1925. Their ownership of the building is the reason it has stayed in business; despite plenty of realtor interest in buying the building.

The viewer doesn’t just see shops, but warehouses, personal apartments, offices, and storage units full of thousands of books.  Examples of some less usual and valuable books are presented and the factors that determine their value.

Other elements presented are some of the classic movies that have featured rare book dealers to one youngish woman who became well-known from her appearances on the TV reality show Pawn Stars set in Las Vegas — Rebecca Romney.

The place of the book in culture is also given attention including examples of very public book banning by totalitarian regimes such as the burning by the Nazis in 1933 of books by ethnically or politically undesirable authors.

The big issue which has dominated the whole industry for about 25 years now is what future exists for printed books?  The film addresses the question and there is a clear dichotomy of opinions by interviewees between pessimists and optimists.

The figures quoted in the film — a decline from 368 bookstores in New York City in the 1950s to 79 in 2018 — demonstrates the effect of the Internet and indicates that the physical book industry is in sharp decline, which it is, but there are scenes showing predominately 20-somethings reading printed books on the Subway and shunning the smartphones that have become a blight among those in older demographic groups.

When it it comes to opportunties to experience older worthwhile books in Waikanae outside of personal collections, in the absence of a proper library the only one at the moment is the annual Lions Bookfair which gives everyone to opportunity to acquire a few or many for minimal outlay. The movie should have the effect of encouraging a visit to that at the least.

Rare book diagram

Not a map of an island, but a fold-out life-size drawing of a fish species in a rare book.

The Booksellers is currently screening at the Shoreline Cinema.