Books on Film

By Beth Lillycrop

Set in New York, The Booksellers is an inspiring documentary that looks at the small number of unique individuals who are truly cut out for the business of bookselling. A rare and raw breed. Read more here in our article Books on film.

If you love literature and found yourself reading a lot more during the lockdown, and relishing a sacred break from work, then you may like the rest of us have been dreaming of quitting your 9 to 5 to run your own niche bookstore. We’d like to recommend a little something to watch, this film The Booksellers will show you how far down the rabbit hole one can go in the world of rare books.

“The world is divided into people who collect things, and people who don’t know what the hell these people are doing collecting things”

Some people have something about them that makes them different, unlike anyone else. If you’ve ever met a Bibliophile, you may have been bewildered by their rather unusual compulsion to wander endlessly through libraries and bookstores, never quite satisfied by the collection they’ve hoarded at home.

If, however, you share in this compulsion, or you’re fascinated by people who do, you’ll likely love the collection of bibliophiles and myriad corridors of books and old artifacts that feature in The Booksellers.

Each character in the documentary is endearingly mad about collecting rare books. One particular gentleman carves out a living by dealing in books of an esoteric nature, with a focus on demonology, witchcraft, and counterculture. “The more uncomfortable a piece makes other dealers, the more likely it is to appeal to me,” he declares, which in hindsight explains his quite unsettling hobby of chasing after the remaining vestiges of victorian Anthropodermic Bibliopegy (a practice of binding books in human skin – often using the skin of murderers).

Perhaps you wouldn’t expect to find such a collection at the New York Book Fair, but each bookseller has their own niche, and like the books themselves, they’re rare finds. We even encounter one man who exclusively sells books which are so large that he hasn’t taken them off the shelves for decades. His book on the catacombs of Rome will probably never see the light of day, and business isn’t exactly booming, but he seems to like it that way.

“I don’t have $85,000 to spend on a book” – Fran Lebowitz.

How much would you pay for the original, handwritten manuscript of your favourite artist’s best work? For Leonard Da Vinci’s Leicester Codex, Bill Gates coughed up $28 million – at an auction, he wasn’t even present for. Call it enthusiasm or a hefty investment, the point is that people will pay inordinate amounts of money to own what no one else has.

But more than financial worth, artists’ and writers’ private sketchbooks, notebooks, and handwritten manuscripts all give us the privilege of watching the artist’s hand at work, which is something of a rarity in a modern age which leaves a trace-less creative process. Young writers in particular benefit from the blueprint that established writers leave behind, like the scribbled notes on Langston Hughes’ poetry, or Sylvia Plath’s handwritten plan for chapters of The Bell Jar.

It seems that the neurosis which drives writers and artists to compulsively create is the same neurosis that drives dedicated (or obsessive) readers and collectors to, well, collect things.

We’d love to get our hands on the envelopes Emily Dickinson scribbled poetry on, Philip Larkin’s letters to his lovers, and Hemingway’s archives (which oddly enough includes a Fidel Castro doll, obviously a collector himself). It has to be said, most of us would search every square inch of our local bookstore if we knew that a priceless hidden gem was lurking, waiting to be uncovered.

“If you’re a collector, you’re a sick, obsessive-compulsive person”

Perhaps you’ve been to the type of second-hand bookstore that would sit nicely in, say, knock-turn alley. The type of bookstore practically bursting with dusty old books that are meant to be hidden. There’s maybe a comfy couch squeezed into a corner, but there’s often someone with a long beard and tiny glasses, looking like they’ve been sat there for centuries with the same book fused to their hands. 

Now, imagine that that bookstore is filled, not with books that have been rescued from a forgotten box in somebody’s loft, but with first editions, incredibly rare finds, possibly hundreds of years old – some even bound in human skin. While there are rare bookstores all over the world, there aren’t any quite like the some 79 stores that sit quietly in New York City. Once called book street, the number of stores has decreased since the ’50s, but the trend for purchasing one-offs and special items has recently started picking up speed amongst younger generations.

The Booksellers takes us on a journey through the costly world running one of these stores – from the business of buying and selling, to the personal accounts of the individuals that are devoted to their love of literature, and the quest embarked on by those who are truly in wonder with the object of the book.

All of the stereotypes of rare book dealers make an appearance in this documentary, which feels populated by people who seem to be borrowed straight from Shakespearian comedy. There are tweed-wearing eccentrics, with handlebar moustaches and obviously no shortage of impeccably stylish thick-rimmed glasses, including those worn by Fran Lebowitz, who, astounded by the price of books at New York Book Festival, waves away any necessity to buy a book for $85,000.

There are also those whose finances have taken somewhat of a beating: “I have a Ph.D. in 16th Century Spanish lyric poetry-” explains one tired-looking, coffee-wielding New Yorker, “-explains why I’m totally broke”. Smiling, he goes on: “if you’re a collector, you’re a sick, obsessive-compulsive person”. And just like that, the pride in his voice tells us that, like the other booksellers in this documentary, he is hopelessly (although, it has to be said, rather romantically) fated to continue the hunt for rare books.

Given that the world of bookselling has seemed like an uphill battle for many of the people in this documentary, you might think younger generations would steer clear. But that is not the case for many entrepreneurial millennials.

A new breed of booksellers are popping up across the world, driven by demand from a market that is younger, hipper, and turned off by anything mass-produced. These new bookstores sell tatty-looking books alongside anything a bit rough around the edges: old vinyl, ephemera, vintage clothes, and of course, well-made coffee.

The world of books may have been having a snooze on a dusty sofa somewhere during the kindle and audiobook hype, but as long as vintage is trendy, rare and secondhand books are back in business.

Find out more information here booksellersdocumetary.com and if you enjoyed this article Books on Film then why not read painted glimpse about postcards in a book