Early on in The Booksellers we visit the Antiquarian book fair in New York. This gives us a good idea of the sort of book seller that we are going to meet – not the people who ran the second-hand market stalls and backstreet shops where I bought my first books, but the purveyors of First Editions and Rare (read, super-expensive) books.
We hear very little about the actual content of the books, but quite a lot about the huge sums for which they have been bought and sold. Most of the booksellers interviewed are at best entrepreneurs and small businessmen/ women. We are told about 1920s Jewish bookstall owners refusing to serve customers because they’re too busy reading. But for most of the current crop of bookseller, books are not there to be read but as products to be traded.
Somewhere in the film, Rebecca Romney, bookseller and star of tv’s Pawn Stars, says that bookselling is “for anyone who is passionate about something. No matter who you are, no matter where you live, no matter what your education or background is – I want people to watch the film and say: ‘Oh, I could be part of this’.“ The problem is that the film shows the exact opposite.
One of the interviewees says that he has a collectors gene that he inherited from his father – that’s why he collects books. Except it isn’t. The important thing that he inherited from his father was a whole lot of money and probably a load of books. That’s why he’s been able to turn a hobby into something which allows him to live the lifestyle to which he’s accustomed.
These points are important later in the film where there is some serious and righteous talk about diversity. How can we change the fact that most booksellers are rich white men? There is a vague suggestion of somehow promoting more women and black people – a noble aim in itself but one which fails to address the point that what excludes most women and black people is the fact that they tend to have less money and fewer connections than rich white men.
Despite the film’s irritating sanctimoniousness, there are some pearls of information hidden amongst the privileged self-righteousness. The fact that Louisa M Allcott had a job on the side writing pulp romances or that Ernest Hemingway had a toy doll of Castro. The idea that first edition book covers are useful because they contain embarrassing biographical information about the author which is expunged from later editions.
Yet even this nugget of information is used to justify the fact that first editions with intact dust jackets can sell for $150,000 instead of merely $5,000. Speaking of unspeakable sums of money, we are shown a book warehouse of the type that I used to love to visit. There may be some expensive books here, we are told, but don’t worry, some are as cheap as $20. What is the income of the expected audience here?
There is also an interesting, if disingenuous discussion about the rise of the Internet. Some dubious claims are made that people read less because of reduced attention spans. I’d presume that the sheer range of available media must mean that people are reading more – just not necessarily books. It becomes clear that this is not the central issue and that at least some of the sellers fear new technology because the books that they sell at a huge profit can now be bought for less online.
We are presented with conflicting arguments – apparently more young people are reading on the subway, which means that book stores are more successful than ever. At the same time, we are told that 80% of book stores in New York have closed down in the recent past. This is a problem with talking head documentaries. The information we hear may be contradictory, but no-one engages with what anyone else has said.
After a while, and without announcing it, the film moves from using the word “bookseller” to “book collector”. In some cases this is obviously a good thing – such the PoC collector who uses his experience as a bookseller and access to Malcolm X’s private letters to curate exhibitions about Black History. Yet other collections are more nebulous – where are they? Are they open to the public? Or are you just boasting about having bought loads of stuff?
For some of the people interviewed, a collection is not much more than a bunch of old hip hop magazines or an old Poison Girls poster (boy would they have hated to be turned into a product like this). Maybe this is what Romney means when she says that even plebs like us can become sellers and collectors. But it’s really not the same as what the poshoes in bow ties are up to, is it?
Somewhere in the middle of the film, there’s an interview with a couple of people visiting the book fair. That is the nearest that we get to hearing anyone who actually buys books for any other reason that the possibility of making money. We are briefly on the edge of a world where books and reading could be fun, even when they’re not profitable.
I know that you shouldn’t really condemn a film for what it doesn’t do, but the fundamental assumptions of The Booksellers means that it interviews the wrong people about the wrong things. Having said this, despite all the problems, there is enough in the film to make a visit not a complete waste of time. Watch it, but be prepared to watch the film very critically.