It’s never a surprise to learn that the Internet has upended a business, or an entire industry. But in the lovely and wistful documentary “The Booksellers,” we hear one telling illustration of how the online universe has revolutionized the world of vintage books, and it’s an object lesson so fraught with irony that it’s a little head-spinning.
Imagine that it was, say, the early ’90s, and you were a rare-book maven with an impassioned, if not obsessive-compulsive, desire to accumulate a complete collection of the works of Edith Wharton, all in first editions. (Since Edith Wharton happens to be my favorite writer, this example nabbed my attention.) How would you do it? You’d go to vintage bookstores, attend auctions, work with a dealer. You’d gather your first editions one by one, over time, and the slow and steady hunt would be part of the pleasure.
But in the world of online book selling, where everything is catalogued and digitized, it’s all potentially a lot simpler. You can still play treasure hunt if you’d like, but all you really have to do is say, “I’d like to own a first-edition copy of every book Edith Wharton ever wrote,” and the computer does the searching for you, all at once. To gather this collection, all you’d have to be ready to do is to put the total sum on your credit card.
In a sense, that’s exhilarating. In rare books, as in so many other things, the Internet can reduce the search for the Holy Grail to an instant click-and-score. But with the hunt made borderline irrelevant, you’re no longer quite collecting; you’re just buying. The thrill may not be gone, but it’s reduced. And for the vintage book-store owner — the professional bibliophile, the man or woman who knows they’re buying and selling not just old books but sacred artifacts — the impact of Internet commerce has been a slow-motion debacle. The web turns them, more and more, into not-so-necessary middlemen. Of course, what the Internet is also doing is accelerating, rather radically, the erosion of our collective passion for book culture. It’s not as if it’s gone away! But when it comes to feeding the book business as a business, the number of people who spend time reading things between covers is in a rapid state of decline.
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Yet if the rare-book trade has reached a crucial moment of struggle, “The Booksellers” reveals that it’s hanging on in novel ways. The present-tense sheen of the 21st century has altered the meaning, and place, of books in our society in ways that can make them seem even more valuable. You might say that vintage books are now like vinyl albums — but in this case, they always were. So for the vintage-book believer, the value of a volume has actually gone up: as totem, as symbol, as artifact of beauty. Its slow fade from the culture only enhances its magic as an object.
“The Booksellers” invites us to dote on the tactile mystery of old books — the elegance of the print, the pages that may be fragmenting, the colorful latticework bindings, the back-breaking size of certain old volumes, like the Gutenberg Bible (more or less the first book ever printed, dating back to the mid-1400s), or one giant book we see that contains intricate drawings of fish skeletons.
D.W. Young, the director of “The Booksellers,” is a veteran film editor who leads us into grand and cozy old bookstores like the mysterious museums they are. He roots the movie in New York City (with a few forays to London), since that’s where the heart of American literary culture still resides, and he introduces us to a cast of characters who are captivating in their what-I-did-for-love devotion. They all have it; if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be in the business.
Many of the stores go back to the ’20s, when 4th Ave., known as book row in Manhattan, had close to 50 bookstores, most of them owned and operated, in the words of Fran Lebowitz, by “dusty Jewish men who would get irritated if you wanted to buy a book.” That, says Lebowitz, is because they’d gone into the business mostly so they could sit around and read all day. The film takes us inside New York’s most fabled bookshop, the Argosy Book Store, founded in 1925 by Louis Cohen and now run by his daughters, Judith, Naomi, and Adina, who are in the rare position of being able to keep the dream alive because they own the six-story building that houses the store on E. 59th St.
The dance of literary aesthetics and money is addictive. In the ’50s and ’60s, dust jackets were considered works of art, until they fell out of favor. Now they’re back in fashion, to the point that a first edition of “The Great Gatsby” without a dust jacket is currently worth about $5,000, whereas with a torn and tattered jacket it would fetch $15,000, and with a jacket in vintage condition it could go for $150,000. At the Antiquarian Book Fair held each year at the Park Avenue Armory, we see an original edition of “Don Quixote,” which is worth $20,000, and learn that a first edition of the original James Bond novel, “Casino Royale,” now goes for $150,000. The comparison to the art market is there in a primal way, even if the book prices are lower (though we do see the auction at which Bill Gates, over the phone, purchased Leonardo’s Codex Hammer for $28 million), with the cost of a vintage book reflecting the ever-shifting values of the culture.
“The Booksellers” finds room for tidbits of history, like a thumbnail sketch of the pioneering book maven A.S.W. Rosenbach, as well as a portrait of the seminal dealer-collectors Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine B. Stern, who had to fight to make their mark in a demimonde of tweedy men. (For years, they were scandalously denied membership in the Grolier Club.) Rostenberg and Stern became legendary, uncovering Louisa May Alcott’s hidden pseudonym as an author of pulp novels, and opening the doors for the contemporary women dealers we meet, like Rebecca Romney, who became a regular on “Pawn Stars,” spreading the gospel of rare-book love with a rare crossover charisma. She emerges as the movie’s cockeyed optimist of bibliophilia.
There’s a happy contradiction at the heart of antiquarian book culture. The passion for books is about the love of reading — the rhythm of it, the meditative space of it, which increasingly stands as a 19th-century counterpulse to the amped heartbeat of the 21st century. But “The Booksellers” is also about the kind of people who relish vintage books as fetish objects. Those of us who love old books know that feeling. Yet it’s not just about owning; that gorgeous rare volume incarnates the concrete mysticism of the reading experience. “The Booksellers” is a documentary for anyone who can still look at a book and see a dream, a magic teleportation device, an object that contains the world.