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June 2, 2020

Film review: ‘The Booksellers’ is a lively homage to rare books

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“The Booksellers” is a must-see for anyone who feels that books are things of wonder — and a lively documentary for collectors of any kind.

The film is streaming through May 6 on the Austin Film Society’s website, austinfilm.org, and it starts with the annual New York Antiquarian Book Fair in the Park Avenue Armory on the Upper East Side.

Director D.W. Young introduces us to the usual suspects in book-dealing — mainly aging white men in tweed suits. But a few women pop up here and there, and you get the sense fairly early that these sellers are a dying breed — and that we might be introduced to those who are changing the industry.

That’s indeed what happens, but the first part the documentary dwells on the old white men and a few old white women, and that’s fine. They talk about how there used to be more than 300 antiquarian bookstores in New York in the 1950s, and how the internet and Amazon have eaten into their profits, causing the number of bookstores to tumble precipitously.

Author and cultural critic Fran Lebowitz plays a prominent role, not only because she’s a collector but also because she laments the passing of an era.

And we are introduced to the late A.S.W. Rosenbach, who is regarded as the greatest book collector in U.S. history, having bought eight Gutenberg bibles as well as numerous copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio. But he was also known for valuing the work of American authors as an investment, when European literature was still considered to be far superior. (He died in 1952).

We also learn of the work of Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern, who discovered through research that Louisa May Alcott wrote a series of pulp fiction books under a pseudonym.

But as numerous booksellers point out, the rare book business has changed more in the last 15 years than in the previous 150 years.

Today, some of the largest book deals are made with the selling of author archives to universities and their institutions. That’s the case with noted book dealer Glenn Horowitz, who has negotiated multimillion-dollar deals with the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas and the library at Columbia University in New York.

New Yorker writer and “The Orchid Thief” author Susan Orlean tells of how Horowitz negotiated a deal for her papers with Columbia — and how she now has to go to the university when doing research for new projects.

Then you have people who collect more than just books. You have folks who are collecting ephemera connected to the women’s movement of the 1970s — and pre-digitized magazines documenting the rise of hip-hop.

All of that doesn’t mean that old-fashioned book auctions and fairs have become obsolete. If you need any reminder of that, then look no further than a book auction in 1994, when Microsoft founder Bill Gates paid $30.8 million for Leonardo da Vinci’s Notebook: The Codex Leicester.

“The Booksellers”
Directed by D.W. Young
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Available for streaming at austinfilm.org

 

Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin Americaan-Statesman.

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