In the 1950s, as noted in D.W. Young’s genial, eminently browse-able documentary, “The Booksellers,” New York City had 358 bookstores. Now it has 79. Well, good for you New York City. Boston has at best half a dozen – one of which is the Brattle Book Shop, established in 1825, which gets but a cameo in the film.
The documentary starts streaming via the Coolidge Corner’s Virtual Screening Room, starting April 17, at coolidge.org/virtual.
The Internet has taken a toll on such establishments. An infinity of books can be accessed online, but what of the thrill of exploring a rabbit warren of bookshelves in a claustrophobic shop and finding a treasure? Though it opens with a quote from Susan Sontag invoking Jorge Luis Borges’s belief that “we owe literature almost everything we are and what we have been,” the film is not about the content, but the container – the tactile, redolent artifact essential to book lovers and sought by collectors.
Even more so it is about the dwindling world of those who hunt down these rarities and sell them (or in some cases seem to hoard them; Jim Cummins probably doesn’t expect to sell his 400,000 volumes in his lifetime). They are an engaging bunch, whose treasures stir the senses and imagination.
Young structures his film with deceptive randomness. Sometimes it seems like the best bibliophilic “Antiques Roadshow” episode ever and at other times like a sprawling independent bookstore itself, meandering but with an elusive, eccentric organizing principle known only to the proprietor.
Those interviewed include, on the higher end, Stephen Massey, founder of Christie’s New York book department, who orchestrated the sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Codex Leicester”; at over $30 million it is the highest price paid for any book or manuscript. On the lower end is Dave Bergman, whose apartment is a labyrinth of tome-laden shelves in which are cabinets filled with fossils, a cat, and a big book from 1907 called “Search for the Mammoth.” It includes a page with an actual tuft of mammoth hair.
Other booksellers offer books bound with human skin, and some supplement their books with ephemera and other objets d’art such as one shop that has Maurice Sendak books and collectibles on one side and Communist Chinese propaganda and statues of Chairman Mao on the other. Somehow it makes sense. And though Young doesn’t venture far from Manhattan, when he does it’s worth the trip, as with a quick visit to Jay Walker’s Library of the History of the Human Imagination, in Ridgefield, Conn. Architecturally stunning, it’s designed to look like an M.C. Escher print, so don’t look too long at the staircases. Along with thousands of impeccably bound books organized by size, it boasts such curios as a 1957 Soviet Sputnik satellite and a page from an English Bills of Mortality, summarizing the week’s deaths from the plague year of 1667. It deserves a documentary of its own.
Most dealers foresee an uncertain future. The Internet has taken away much of their business, flooding the market and lowering prices for mid-range items. The older dealers are especially glum, but not so much the younger ones. Says Rebecca Romney – a bookseller who has boosted her profile with appearances on the History Channel’s “Pawn Stars” – “Older dealers are so pessimistic. I am so optimistic. They say what are you going to do? And I say I have so many ideas!”
Will print books ultimately disappear, replaced by digital versions? The ever-entertaining and insightful Fran Lebowitz offers anecdotal evidence to the contrary. She notes that on the subway she sees many people in their 20s reading actual books. So perhaps there is hope a new generation will revive the bound medium.
The film ends with another quote from Borges, from his story “The Library of Babel”: “The library will endure. It is the universe.” Hopefully there will always be readers, too.
Directed by D.W. Young. Available via Coolidge Corner Virtual Screening Room. April 17-30. 99 minutes. Unrated. Go to coolidge.org/virtual.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.