In the age of streaming, documentary has perhaps never had a higher profile. With works such as Knock Down the House, Fyre and Ava DuVernay’s seminal 13th we have seen the power of documentary to enlighten, empower and (in the case of Fyre) even titillate. In that kind of atmosphere, it is easy to forget that the form’s primary function is simply to document reality. That sometimes a documentary can still be a dry and relatively dreary exploration of an esoteric subject.
Such is the case with The Booksellers, a deep dive into the arcane and inscrutable world of New York’s rare book market. A series of interviews with book collectors, sellers and archivists that form a comprehensive overview of its unique world. The documentary spans the history of both the local and wider scene; from the earliest book auctions in the 1600s to the pioneering work of booksellers like Rostenberg and Stern in the 1960s, all the way through to its current state. Travelling across the Annual New York Antiquarian Book Fair, auction houses and all manner of libraries, archives, warehouses and dusty second-hand bookshops. All of which is incredibly fascinating and revealing if (like me) you happen to have an interest in rare books.
The documentary certainly tries to tie the New York Book Scene to a broader sense of world history. Emphasising the importance of books, the need for preservation, the efforts to diversify the field and the less-than-secure future of the profession. However, it never escapes the reality of the highly specialised nature of its subject. In short, The Booksellers is not a documentary for the uninitiated. It requires, nay demands, a high level of interest in book antiquity and anyone without that will inevitably be left out in the cold.
It makes an almost admirable attempt to sex up the subject matter. Showing clips from the likes of The Big Sleep, Unfaithful and even The Neverending Story that demonstrate the popular cultural perception of a bookseller. Amusing portraits of elderly Jewish bookstore owners irritated by the mere thought of a customer. Intense tales of book auctions where the price climbs into the millions. And of course, there is the narration which waxes lyrical about the value of books as historical record. Whatever their physical value our books are the collective knowledge of all humanity and that to condemn the former to obsolesce would also condemn the latter. It’s powerful stuff that never allows the performance to obstruct the substance of the content. Parker Poser delivers it so casually that the voice is almost unrecognisable as hers.
It also doesn’t hurt that the various booksellers, collectors and archivists’ interviews are charming and colourful and quirky in their own ways. The film hints at the mindset of a collector as one-part aficionado, one-part possessed hoarder. All of whom treat their lives with an endearing level of self-deprecation. The more notable focus is put on Rebecca Romney as one of the rare book scenes more anomalous figures. Not only a young woman working in the field but an optimistic one working tirelessly to force book antiquity into the mainstream by appearing on shows such as Pawn Stars. If The Booksellers can be said to have any kind of narrative is one that positions Romney as the future of its subject.
That said, like many documentaries, The Bookseller cannot really be said to have any kind of narrative direction. It hops along from subject to subject, almost lulling us with a score that boarders on drippy but is pleasant enough to allow the experience to pass unencumbered. Its pace is so casual and peaceful that if you’re already along for the ride you might as well keep going. If you’re an enthusiast then The Booksellers is full of interesting facts, a charming sense of humour and a library’s worth of passion for its craft.