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    The Booksellers is a fascinating look into the world of rare book dealers.

    Joseph Pomp

    October 4, 2019, 3:33pm

    First editions, signed or inscribed copies, incunabula, manuscripts, and artists’ books . . . the list goes on. Bibliophiles of all stripes are aware of these terms and their monetary value although they may not have a clue who has the privilege (or burden) of trafficking these objects day-in and day-out. The Booksellers, a documentary directed by D.W. Young and narrated by Parker Posey that will have its world premiere on October 7 at the New York Film Festival this week, brings to light the fascinatingly eccentric community of rare book dealers. 

    Running specialized bookstores and schlepping stock from one antiquarian book fair to the next are only two hustles amongst the many that have kept the business alive. The book hunt itself is a key part of the job, and if the film has a climax, it is undoubtedly when we enter a recently vacated apartment—teeming with dusty stacks of tomes—with noted antiquarian Adam Weinberger. Oftentimes, working directly with wealthy individuals, booksellers help build private collections (as in the case of The Library of the Human Imagination, inspired by visionary Dutch artist M.C. Escher and tended to by Priceline.com founder Jay S. Walker, who gives the filmmakers a special tour).

    Booksellers also broker important deals with research libraries, as we learn through an interview with Glenn Horowitz, who at age 24 famously left his job in the Rare Books division of the Strand to start a competing business. He has gained special recognition for his track record in placing the literary archives of such major figures as Vladimir Nabokov, Norman Mailer, and Susan Orlean (who appears in the documentary). Most recently, his sale of the Bob Dylan archives to George B. Kaiser and the University of Tulsa has made headlines.

    Antiquarians may be custodians of literary history, but they also rightfully lay claim to part of it. The selling of rare books dates back at least to the 17th century when specialized auctions first took place in England, as the documentary notes. The documentary also introduces us to key players in the history of bookselling, such as the pioneering team of Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine B. Stern, and A.S.W. Rosenbach, whose domination of the trade on both sides of the Atlantic went unrivaled from the turn of the 20th century until the early 1950s. We learn about the preponderance of family dynasties in the business, from the three sisters née Cohen who took over Argosy Books on East 59th Street from their grandfather Louis, to Nancy Bass-Wyden, co-owner of The Strand along with her father Fred, whose own father Benjamin had opened the store in 1927, when Fourth Avenue was lined not with coffee shops and hotels but publishers and other amply crowded bookstores.

    While from a dollars-and-cents viewpoint, the world of rare books and manuscripts may be at an all-time low, The Booksellers demonstrates that it’s actually doing the best it ever has, as far as the range of book subjects and types of people represented within it is concerned. Kevin Young, Director of the Schomburg Center, admits that he’s nearly always the only black person at the rare book conventions he frequents, but many signs point to a growing interest amongst people of color in collecting, preserving, and presenting material traces of their history. Syreeta Gates, for instance, has amassed a world-class collection of hip-hop publications and ephemera over years of being a superfan. Other important collectors we meet that deviate from the stereotype of book collector as tweed-jacketed white man include Caroline Schimmel, whose Collection of American Women in the Wilderness at Penn is nothing short of trailblazing, and Henry Wessells, whose occult interests and trippy calm make you wonder if he landed here from another planet.

    Like so many arts and cultural enterprises, brick-and-mortar bookselling today is of course just a shadow of its past grandeur. As Bass-Wyden observes, the number of bookstores in New York City has plummeted from 368 in the 1950s to 79 in 2019. The myriad sellers, collectors, and random aficionados (Fran Leibovitz appearing as a self-deprecating take on the latter) rightfully lament the steady decline of the bookshop, but they also take stock of the reasons to maintain hope.

    The opening of new stores in New York like Aeon, Better Read Than Dead, and Codex that focus on smaller presses and obscure sub-fields in art and counterculture points to an increasing interest amongst millennials in books, especially as material objects worth collecting. Beyond offering a reflection on the state of local rare and antiquarian bookselling, The Booksellers pushes us to consider the manifold place that books still occupy in our lives.

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