Before Kindle and Kobo, or even paperbacks, books were meticulously crafted, sewn, bound, and cared for. The Booksellers is a documentary that pays tribute to New York City’s book dealers, and sadly, laments a trade in decline.
Refresh your memory of this scene at the end of Little Women (2019): Jo looks keenly through the window into the printer’s room, her book being crafted, type set, pages pressed and sewn, a gold leaf embossed on the title, finished and handed to her. After she receives it from the pressman, she hugs it close to her heart.
As one bookseller notes, the relationship of the individual to the book is very much like a love affair. This 99-minute documentary directed by D. W. Young is for book lovers, letting them be privy to a trade that’s driven by passion.
The film is like a scrapbook in motion, opening page after page filled with fascinating history and photos of the bookselling trade in NYC and informative interviews with the City’s book dealers. They lead us into their lairs––their collection mounting high in their stores and in storage, often in their own apartment––open their treasure troves and share their personal journey. Marie Kondo won’t work here, for every book brings joy.
Independent booksellers set up shops in New York City back in the 1920’s, Strand, Argosy, and many others. At one time in the 1950’s there were 368 but when the film was made last year, one bookseller had counted there were 79.
At first it was an old boys club. Impressions we have of booksellers are probably older white men in tweed jackets with elbow patches. Not that book women did not exist back in the day, but that for a long time, they had not been recognized.
Rebecca Romney, rare book specialist in History Channel’s series Pawn Stars, points to two women of note. Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern were dealers who began right after the war around 1944-45, their business lasting for over 60 years. It’s never easy for women striving in a man’s world, but they were able to establish their reputation and gain respect in the trade.
Rostenberg and Stern had made a significant find too. They discovered Louisa May Alcott had “a secret life as a pulp writer… often a very sexy, very violent pulp writer.”
Kudos to Greta Gerwig, again. Remember the scene in Little Women when the serious German professor Friedrich Bhaer is disappointed when he reads some of Jo’s published writing, thinking her talents are misplaced. “With plots like this, duels and killing?” He must be reading her pulpy work. Gerwig sure did her research well.
Sisters Judith, Naomi & Adina run Argosy Book Store on 59th street, continuing with the legacy started by their father Louis Cohen in 1925. Their father had bought the whole building of several floors, that’s why they can stay open now as they own the building. Many bookstores have to close due to high rents. Argosy is NYC’s oldest independent bookstore that’s still in business.
Booksellers are hunter-gatherers. It’s the hunt, the constant seeking that gratifies. Some rare books could take them a few decades to pursue. But with the Internet, “in 45 minutes, you can locate all the first edition of Edith Wharton’s books.” The mystery is gone.
A tidbit: Dust jackets are important. Don’t throw them away, especially if you have a first edition. And, if you have this book in first edition with a dust jacket in good shape, it could fetch you $150,000.
An interesting antiquity is a photo album from 1907 titled “Search for Mammoth”. From an expedition in Alaska the explorers found a frozen mammoth and they actual mounted examples of real mammoth hair from 15,000 years ago into the back of the album.
Bookseller Justin Schiller started young in collecting, in particular, the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. While still a child, he bought the first edition of Wizard of Oz for $5. The person who sold it to him apparently didn’t know it was a first edition. At 12, Justin became the youngest person to loan to Columbia University in its 200-year history when the University was looking for certain items for a Baum centenary presentation. Passion for books and ephemera starts early.
Diversity is the key for the book trade to remain relevant today. Interview with Kevin Young, director and curator of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, points to the significance of the Center in keeping important collections such as Malcom X’s papers to Lorraine Hansberry, or James Baldwin’s notes and papers revealing his writing process. Some say Baldwin, who was born and raised in Harlem, learned to read at the Schomburg Center.
A quietly riveting documentary of a collective history and a beloved artifact, and a prompt to keep it alive for all our sakes.
~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples