THE BOOKSELLERS is a lively, behind-the-scenes look at the New York rare book world and the fascinating people who inhabit it. Executive produced by Parker Posey and featuring interviews with some of the most important dealers in the business, as well as prominent collectors, auctioneers, and writers, THE BOOKSELLERS is both a loving celebration of book culture and a serious exploration of the future of the book.
In a short closing video segment, Fran Leibowitz describes what happened when she loaned a book to David Bowie. See more »
A Behind-the-Scenes Look at a Seldom-Covered But Worthwhile Topic
The number of films which feature rare book trading you could probably count on your fingers. One of the few is "The Ninth Gate" (loosely based on "Club Dumas" by Perez-Reverte) with Johnny Depp, an antiquarian book scout who's on the sleazier end of the spectrum. (He uses the old "high ball/low ball trick" to acquire an important antiquarian edition of "Don Quixote" printed in 1780.) Another is "84 Charing Cross Road". A few rare and antiquarian booksellers appear at the beginning of a few fantasy films, such "The Neverending Story", often as rather cantankerous older eccentrics in tweed jackets and droopy plaid bow-ties. (I wish the plaid bow-tie would be put out of its misery.)
"The Booksellers" offers a more nuanced perspective featuring those trading in antiquarian, rare and collectible books. Most of the booksellers given airtime have been in the trade a long time but there are a fair number of relatively young newcomers who are also given screen-time. (The age of 40 is regarded as "young" in the trade.) It also chronicles a bit about the history of collectible and antiquarian book trading and even a segment about the dynamics of auctions. (Often films having an auction scene are nearly exclusively fine art.)
I am an antiquarian book collector myself (mostly books printed circa 1500 to 1700), and I've bought a few items from some of the booksellers profiled. It is interesting that during the 20th century, there were dozens and in some cases 100's of used bookstores in urban areas. Books have been an important part of many people's lives. And yet for elusive reasons, the world of books gets sparse media attention, be it films, television, and even books about books. Book collectors I think tend to be under the radar. Until I joined the Book Club of California, I knew almost no book collectors.
Several of the people highlighted: Rebecca Romney, whose sort of the closest equivalent to a movie star in the antiquarian book world (if there is such a thing), in large part because of her book appraisals on the History Channel's "Pawn Stars"; David Bergman, a pretty down-to-earth mid-level NY antiquarian bookseller who specializes in large antiquarian with prints and engravings; and Henry Wessells of James Cummins, bookseller. Nicholas Lowry, who many PBS viewers will recognize because of his appraisals of vintage posters on the Antiques Roadshow US, offers compelling commentary on the history of book collecting. So does Stephen Massey, also a regular on the Antiques Roadshow US. One of Massey's claims to fame was being the auctioneer at the sale of Leonardo da Vinci's notebook. Winning bidder: Bill Gates of Microsoft fame. Massey also authenticated a copy of the Shakespeare First Folio which had been stolen from Durham University, Britain, in the 1990's.
One thing I appreciated about the documentary is a few book collectors and curators were interviewed. Often, material concerning the antiquarian and collectible book trade focuses only on the sellers. There wouldn't be sellers if there were no collectors! Michael Zinman, collector of early-printed books in America receives ample treatment and several booksellers comment on his focus. I also enjoyed Kevin Young, poet and curator, talking about material written and published during the Harlem Renaissance.
Two recurring themes of the documentary: that the antiquarian book traders are aging (both among dealers and collectors) and how the internet has in a lot of ways changed in some cases stifled old business models. From a collector's perspective, the internet has made collecting much easier. Simultaneously I can see how it radically forced booksellers to alter a modus operandi which worked for nearly two centuries. A first edition from 1975 which might have easily sold for $250 in 1995, if only because it wasn't easy to find a copy locally, is now competing with copies on the internet which might be priced at say $50.
I think the antiquarian booksellers need to find new and exciting ways to tap potential customers and future collectors. I'm actually a renaissance faire participant and I exhibit books printed in the 1500s to early 1600's. It's interesting how few people know that these books are bought and sold routinely. At renaissance faire, when exhibiting a Geneva Bible from 1589, it is not uncommon for people to say "How did you get this?" The answer: "I bought it from a bookseller!"
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