Review: ‘The Booksellers,’ starring Dave Bergman, Adam Weinberger, Rebecca Romney, Fran Lebowitz, Nancy Bass Wyden and Justin Schiller

March 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

Argosy Book Store owners Adina Cohen, Judith Lowry and Naomi Hample in “The Booksellers” (Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)

“The Booksellers” 

Directed by D.W. Young

Culture Representation: This documentary focuses on booksellers in New York City, and most of the people interviewed are white, middle-class and middle-aged.

Culture Clash: Independent booksellers, especially those who own brick-and-mortar bookstores, are facing uphill struggles with rising costs, changing technology and fierce competition from Amazon and other Internet-based businesses.

Culture Audience: “The Booksellers” will appeal primarily to literary enthusiasts, especially those who want to find out more about how the bookseller industry works behind the scenes.

Book dealer Adam Weinberger in “The Booksellers” (Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)

If you believe all the gloom-and-doom naysayers who predict that Amazon and other Internet retailers are going to permanently kill off brick-and-mortar bookstores, then you would be wrong. At least it’s not going to happen in the 21st century. Because despite the fact that it’s more difficult than ever before for brick-and-mortar bookstores to be profitable, let alone stay in business, as long as people read books, there will be a market to sell them. The absorbing documentary “The Booksellers,” directed by D.W. Young, puts the spotlight on a specific part of the book industry: booksellers who are based in New York City, the book-publishing capital of the world.

Borders Books. Crown Books. B. Dalton Bookseller. These retail-chain bookstores used to be titans of the industry. And now they’re all dead. For now, giant retailer Barnes & Noble and a shrinking number of independent bookstores are still holding on to what’s left of the appetite for buying books at brick-and-mortar locations.

The documentary does a good job of explaining industry trends. There are three types of book buyers: private collectors (who are increasingly rare), dealers and institutions. The Internet has been a blessing and a curse. The type of booksellers hardest hit by the Internet have been those selling first editions of books.

On the other hand, the Internet can be used to a bookseller’s advantage with the right marketing, because the Internet allows a bookseller to reach customers all over the world. And most of the booksellers say that in order to stay in business, they have to sell other things besides books. Memorabilia is the top choice as an additional product to sell because memorabilia can easily complement books.

What the documentary should have addressed more is the prejudice that these booksellers have against electronic books (also known as e-books), because e-books are described as the enemy of independent booksellers. However, it seems like the booksellers in the documentary are in denial that future generations will shift to more “paperless” options in many aspects of life.

That’s not to say that traditional paper books are going away. It’s just that booksellers either didn’t want to talk a lot in this documentary about this inevitable trend of more people reading books on mobile devices, or the booksellers did talk about it a lot, but that footage was largely was cut out of the movie. At any rate, this denial about e-books is very similar to denial that brick-and-mortar music retailers had back in the 1990s and early 2000s, when they didn’t want to fully admit that digital music was taking over. And now, most of those retailers are out of business.

As younger generations shift to a more digital world (one that seems to favor watching videos over reading), booksellers are rightly concerned that their business will continue on its downward spiral. But it wasn’t too long ago that people were saying that vinyl records were dead. And now, sales of vinyl records have been making a huge comeback. And the largest percentage of buyers of vinyl records are people who weren’t even born when compact discs were invented in the ’80s.

But the biggest difference is that music will always have a young audience willing to buy and sell music. Will books still have a young audience? As buyers, yes. (As long as every generation has a blockbuster book series such as “Harry Potter,” young people can be counted to buy books.)

But as sellers? Well, the jury is still out on that. Based on what “The Booksellers” documentary shows, book selling is a profession that doesn’t seem to have a huge, enthusiastic influx of young people coming in to take the reigns of a struggling industry. Almost everyone interviewed in “The Booksellers” is middle-aged or a senior citizen.

Early on in “The Booksellers,” the movie addresses the diversity problem among booksellers, not just in New York but in the industry overall. For centuries, American booksellers were expected to be white men (usually middle-aged) because that was the demographic most likely to have the education and resources to buy and sell books. A.S.W. Rosenbach, who was considered the quintessential American bookseller in the first half of the 20th century, is mentioned in the documentary as being the epitome of people’s stereotype of a bookseller: a white, older man who’s an intellectual literary snob and probably someone who likes to wear tweed.

Although there are more women and people of color in the New York bookselling community than there were several decades ago, the documentary acknowledges it’s still an industry dominated by white men. To its credit, the documentary does make an admirable effort to interview a diverse array of people, not just those who are in the middle-aged, white male demographic.

A great deal of the documentary features female booksellers. Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine B. Stern (co-owners of Rostenberg & Stern Rare Books, from 1945 to 2005) are mentioned the most frequently as women who broke gender barriers in bookselling. Stern also co-founded the annual New York Antiquarian Book Fair.

Among the female book dealers interviewed is Type Punch Matrix book dealer Rebecca Romney, who’s best known to TV audiences as a book expert on the reality show “Pawn Stars.” She talks about how there’s still a lot of ingrained sexism in the book industry and that women in the industry have an added responsibility to continue to prove that they can be just as knowledgeable as men about books. However, she’s very optimistic about the future of the book industry.

Also interviewed are Honey and Wax Booksellers owner Heather O’Donnell; Imperial Fine Books owner Bibi Mohamed, whose specialty is leather-bound books; and private collector Caroline Schimmel, whose focus is on literature by and about women.

But you can tell that the makers of this documentary probably had to struggle to find African American booksellers in New York City to interview, because the African American who gets the most screen time in the movie is hip-hop archivist Syreeta Gates, who spends most of her interview not talking about books but about old hip-hop magazines that she’s collecting so she can digitize them for posterity. This movie is called “The Booksellers,” not “The Magazine Collectors.”

Another African American who’s interviewed in the film is The New Yorker poetry editor Kevin Young, who is an author and the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. He’s not a bookseller either, but he does offer some great insight into book collecting from an African American perspective and how things get prioritized in his work with the Schomburg Center. Meanwhile, Asian and Latino booksellers have very little screen time in the movie.

As for the most well-known independent bookstores (past and present) in New York City, “The Booksellers” has interviews with some of the owners. Almost all of the long-standing bookstores in New York City are family-owned business that have been passed down from generation to generation. They include The Strand (whose co-owner Nancy Bass Wyden is interviewed) and Argosy Book Store, which is run by sisters Adina Cohen, Naomi Hample and Judith Lowry.

And, of course, New York City’s rising rent (which has forced out many small business owners) is mentioned as one of the top reasons why it’s extremely difficult for a bookstore to survive in the city. Not being able to afford the rent is why former Skyline Books owner Rob Warren (who’s interviewed in the film) says he had to shutter the store in 2010, after 20 years in business. Warren is now a private book dealer. The Strand, which always seems to be busy no matter what time of day or night, has been able to stay in business partly because the family owns the building.

Perhaps the most fascinating people interviewed in the documentary are not the owners of famous bookstores but the independent dealers who’ve turned their homes into libraries. The most fabulous showcase in the documentary is from Priceline.com founder Jay Walker, owner of the Walker Library of the History of Human Imagination, which is a personal library that could easily rival any great book museum in the world. It’s not a typical cluttered space with stacks of books. The architecture and even the lighting in the space are truly stunning.

Unlike a lot of the private dealers shown in the documentary who work in spaces that look like they haven’t dusted or neatly stacked the books in years, Walker’s collection looks clean, almost immaculate. It’s obvious he’s spent the money not just to collect the books but also to properly maintain them.

The most memorable eccentric in the documentary is Justin Schiller, whose specialty is children’s books. He started collecting as a child, by owning a first edition of “The Wizard of Oz.” At age 12, he says he began dealing books to Columbia University. And he currently has a unique collection of Maurice Sendak and Chairman Mao memorabilia that he’s gathered for public display. He officially has bragging rights to have the only public space dedicated solely to Sendak and Mao.

Adam Weinberger (who can be seen on “Pawn Stars”) and Dave Bergman are perhaps the closest to most people’s stereotypes of the modern-day New York City private book dealer. They’re middle-aged men who live alone in cluttered apartments that are stacked to the brim with books. It’s not quite extreme hoarder territory, where it’s impossible to walk around, but it’s kind of close. They’re obvious workaholics, which doesn’t seem to leave much time for a personal life. And it would probably be hard to find a live-in partner who would be okay with having all those books cramped in one space. (Weinberger lives in a studio apartment.)

A subset of the bookselling community are book scouts—people who aren’t fully committed to having their own bookstores, but who are always on the lookout for rare books and will often get paid commissions by booksellers. Martin Stone, a British native who died in 2016 at the age of 69, is mentioned as a legendary New York book scout. (He was also a respected musician.) Another subset consists of seekers—people whose specialty is looking for the rarest of the rare books.

“The Booksellers” film also has commentary from notable people who aren’t retailers but are authors (such as the hilarious Fran Lebowitz and the witty Gay Talese) and auctioneers, such as Christie’s New York book department founder Stephen Massey, a third-generation auctioneer who auctioned off Da Vinci’s “Hammer codex,” one of the most valuable books ever sold. From the perspective of an auction house, Massey says that because most books aren’t one-of-a-kind, books are considered a less-rarefied form of collecting than collecting art such as paintings and sculptures.

This documentary is undoubtedly very niche and won’t be of much interest to anyone who doesn’t like to read books. And the movie’s cinematography and editing are very basic, but it’s not necessary for this film to be artsy or fancy, given the subject matter. However, the documentary is very well-researched and very accessible for people as young as 10 who are avid book readers and want to know more about the industry. In fact, beyond traditional cinemas, “The Booksellers” should be shown at interested libraries and schools. After all, if the book industry is going to survive, it’s going to need enough people in younger generations to have the type of passion for books that the people have in this documentary.

Greenwich Entertainment released “The Booksellers” in New York City on March 6, 2020.