Sex, violence, and groundbreaking cinematography are among the many, many things that The Booksellers is not selling. Sorry, but they just sell books. It’s right there in the title. Actually, because this is a documentary “exposing” the decidedly un-seedy underbelly of New York rare book collectors, purveyors, and auctioneers, it isn’t even really selling you anything.
The Booksellers is a perfectly quaint, fairly responsible “talking head” interview extravaganza about people who think books are super neat. If this is disinteresting to you, nothing in the paragraphs that follow are gonna put a whisper in your snickerbox. On the other hand, if you have been personally victimized by Marie Kondo’s book disposals, let’s giggle about a glorified “very special episode” of Antiques Roadshow.
Right, now that all the non-nerds are gone, how good do old books smell, right? If you wish that Gwyneth Paltrow made a candle that smelled of a novel being opened instead, The Booksellers are your people. Other than the brilliant Fran Leibowitz, the interviewees get no more high profile than the woman who went on Pawn Stars to appraise books and the auctioneer who presided over the sale of the most expensive book ever sold. No spoilers as to what it was, but it was not one of the books bound in human skin that are mentioned.
For the most part, nothing said is particularly revelatory. Did you know that the internet has complicated and possibly ruined rare book collecting and selling? If not, you could have deduced it by the fact that Al Gore’s internet ruins just about everything. Did you know that people who collect books are inclined to collect other, weirder crap? If not, you could have deduced it by the “whimsical” mustaches on display. Did you know that rich, white dudes made it very difficult for non-dudes and non-white folks to participate in the book culture? If not, you could have deduced it by being alive in America.
Bonus points to The Booksellers for spending a not-insignificant amount of time exploring the intersection of the rare book world and black culture. The film also speaks for and champions women like Madeleine B. Stern and Leona Rostenberg, who used literary sleuthing to find out that Louisa May Alcott used a pseudonym to write 19th century smut! “Ribald prose from the pen that brought you Little Women” is exactly as sensational as it gets for a documentary that features a page-by-page presentation of fish pictures at one point.
What mildly elevates The Booksellers over the billion other documentaries about niche subjects that feature quirky seated experts excitedly discussing their quirks is its reverence for what books symbolize. Everything in life these days is filtered through a COVID-19 lens. With tens of thousands dead and life uncertain, the importance of books as historical artifacts, as tangible teleporters to different worlds, and as proof that the human mind is capable of great and mighty things is not insignificant. Maybe the kooky collectors of meticulously bound words had already figured something the rest of us needed a pandemic to teach us.
Grade = B