If you’re like me, one of the things you’ve missed most during the pandemic is the experience of leisurely bookstore browsing. If you can’t quite satisfy that urge in person yet, the next best thing is to watch The Booksellers, the quietly lovely 2019 documentary about rare and antiquarian booksellers.
This is a movie deeply informed by its subjects’ passion for books–both as texts and as distinct physical objects (you can almost smell the slightly musty book-smell through the screen when you’re watching it)–but it does its best not to tip over into pure sentimentality, and it succeeds at least part of the time. Director D.W. Young shows off the sheer and sometimes intimidating beauty of these shops, but he also gets his hand-picked sellers to talk about the problems in their field, the ones that attack from within and without. Independent bookstores have seen a wave of closures. (Watching this in 2021, it’s impossible not to dwell on how much worse things are about to get for them.) Some of the traditional customers have fallen away, especially after the internet made it so much easier to order rare books and, in some cases, find out that they weren’t that rare after all. Even the bookstore owners who insist they could never be in another line of work nod ruefully when someone mentions the unexpected physical toll the job takes on you. And the business always had its rotten spots, including ingrained sexism and racism.
The elegiac quality of the film is undercut with some acerbic hope–hope that comes from sellers who think that the field isn’t dying, just changing, and, for that matter, changing in necessary ways that let in more kinds of people than were allowed before. We see bookstores that specialize in significant works by women, everything from major literature to cowgirl Americana, and we look at the curation of Black literature and history. There’s also an interesting growing market for ephemera and odds-and-ends like vintage toys and the original zines covering the punk rock scene. The sense of wanting to touch something straight out of history, something that’s vanished from the visible landscape, is alive and well.
The Booksellers is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.