‘The Booksellers’ highlights a fading industry

The Booksellers (2019)

The Booksellers (2020)

Directed by D.W. Young

“The Booksellers” is a profile of a profession—antiquarian bookselling. The industry has changed over the years, with the onset of the internet, but in some ways, it has remained stale. It’s still roughly 85% male, for instance, though “The Booksellers” features some female collectors/sellers and some people of color, too. That’s when the documentary is at its best—when it focuses on the niche collections of sellers that don’t fit the mold (stuffy old white men wearing tweed). One collector buys 1980s and ‘90s hip hop magazines and has amassed an impressive library of rap ephemera. But normally, “The Booksellers” is an intellectual’s curio, a parade of septuagenarians showcasing their most interesting (and most expensive) pieces of literary history. It can feel holier than thou, at times.

“The Booksellers” chronicles bookselling’s recent history—it touches on its distant past, in old England, but mainly talks about the new epicenter, New York City. At one time, NYC’s 4th Avenue was known as Book Row, for the enormous number of bookstores that lined the street—too many of them are mentioned here to keep track of. Now the entire city has fewer than 80 independent bookstores (for the so-called capital of bookselling, that’s a terribly low number). Supply is low, demand is lower, and this once-important industry is not replacing its oldest participants with young ones. (The business of trade books, though, is not dying on account of millennials. It’s an older generation that preferred the convenience of the Kindle and Nook. That’s not very important…just a defense of my generation.) “The Booksellers” does showcase the achievements of some newbies—almost exclusively women and people of color. But mostly, it’s what you expect—old men bemoaning the decline of a world in which people were willing to spend millions of dollars on books with the intent to resell. That sort of subject can only take a documentary so far before audiences stop caring.


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