The Booksellers, directed by D.W. Young, a documentary about a group of established antiquarian book dealers in New York City, is a valentine to the used book industry as well as book lovers around the globe. The documentary was released in 2019, and recently began streaming on Amazon Prime. On the official website, Young writes: “Antiquarian booksellers are part scholar, part detective and part businessperson, and their personalities and knowledge are as broad as the material they handle. They also play an underappreciated yet essential role in preserving history. The Booksellers takes viewers inside their small but fascinating world, populated by an assortment of obsessives, intellects, eccentrics and dreamers.” To paraphrase T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, “Let us go, then you and I, when the books are spread across the table…”
The documentary introduces viewers to fascinating, charming, and some rather eccentric booksellers whose comprehensive knowledge and passion for books is infectious. While book dealers tend to be male (according to the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, 85% of booksellers are male; 15% female), the documentary presents a balance of genders, as well as ages. Along the way, we meet Dave Bergman (giant books); Adina Cohen, Haomi Hample, and Judith Lowry (Argosy books); Jim Cummins (James Cummins Bookseller with an inventory of over 400,000 books); Arthur Fournier (transformative cultural movements); Stephen Massey (founder of auction house Christie’s book department); Bibi Mohamed (leather bound books), Heather O’Donnell (Honey & Wax Booksellers); William Reese (greatest American rare book dealer); Rebecca Romney (Type Punch Matrix; Pawn Stars book expert); Justin Schiller (children’s books); Adam Weinberger (book hunter and Pawn Stars guest); and Henry Wessells (bookseller, poet, writer, and sci-fi collector).
The segments with booksellers are punctuated with very brief interviews with notable authors like Fran Lebowtiz, Gay Talese, and Susan Orlean. We also get to meet two well-known book collectors: Michael Zinman and Jay Walker. Indeed, one of the highlights of the documentary is a glimpse of Walker’s stunningly beautiful private library — the envy of every book collector. Incidentally, if you don’t recognize his name, Jay Walker happens to be the founder of Priceline.com; his net worth is estimated to be $1.6 billion. And that type of discretionary income can purchase a lot of books — and a very impressive custom-designed library to house them. The library is connected by a hallway to his private residence in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Known as the Walker Library of The History of Human Imagination, it contains more than 25,000 books, manuscripts, historical objects, and artifacts in a 3.5-level, 3,600 square-foot space. As he explains, they are organized by size, not by topic — something that would truly annoy just about every librarian watching this documentary. Historical artifacts include an actual Sputnik, a meteorite, dinosaur bones, model Saturn V rocket, Enigma code machine, an Edison phonograph, and a facsimile of the Gutenberg Bible — to name a few. The walls are lined with wood bookshelves from floor to ceiling, and the interior is filled with 25 staircases that lead to balconies and platforms. This maze-like, multi-level design was inspired by the work of M. C. Escher. Unfortunately, the documentary spends very little time in Walker’s library; however, curious bibliophiles can view it in greater detail in the dazzling documentary titled “Experience the Walker Library of Human Imagination” by David Hofman that can be found on YouTube.
Although many worthy used books can be purchased from $10 to $50 dollars, the documentary makers are captivated by very expensive books that are sought after by bibliophiles with deep pockets. Interestingly, how quickly a book can increase in value is illustrated by the bookseller who shares the story of how he purchased the rarest book in American Literature, Tamerlane and Other Poems. That book is a pocket-sized poetry book self-published in 1827 by an anonymous author (the cover reads “A Bostonian”). That Bostonian happens to be the Master of the Macabre, Edgar Allan Poe. The bookseller explains how an individual stumbled upon the book at a garage sale and purchased it for $15. He then sold it to the bookseller for $200,000. Talk about appreciation! We also learn about the scale of value of a first edition of The Great Gatsby: $5,000 for the book without a dust jacket, $15,000 with a torn and tattered dust jacket, and $150,000 for a book with a clean dust jacket. A bookseller shows us a fourth edition of Don Quixote de la Mancha, considered the first modern novel, worth $20,000. He follows that with this stunning biblio-factoid: the value of a first edition of Casino Royale by Ian Fleming $150,000. We get the point: pricing can be capricious; nevertheless, Cervantes must be spinning in his grave. The documentary also discusses to famous rare books at the extreme end of the price continuum. The first, is the sale of the Gutenberg Bible, by the Pfrozheimer Foundation, to the Harry Ransom Center (at the University of Texas at Austin) for $2.2 million in 1978. The second is Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester, which was sold in November 1994 for $28 million to Bill Gates. The seller, Armand Hammer (owner of Occidental Petroleum), made a handsome profit, since he had purchased the rare manuscript several years earlier for a mere $5 million. Who says books are a bad investment? (By the way, if you’re curious about the value of Shakespeare’s First Folio, which was not discussed in the documentary, one was sold on October 14, 2020 by Mills College to Stephan Lowentheil, a rare book collector, for $9.98 million.)
There is much to capture the imagination in this documentary — after all, to paraphrase Jorge Luis Borges, there is an entire universe in books. But there is a thread of lament that runs throughout the documentary. We learn that antiquarian booksellers are a dying breed, many are in their last generation. When they pass away, their inventory, and more significantly, their comprehensive knowledge of books will vanish. Early in the documentary, we learn about New York City’s famous Book Row during the the mid-20th century: 48 bookstores located on six blocks of 4th Avenue. Nancy Bass Wyden, co-owner of The Strand bookstore, explains how her grandfather founded the store in 1927 on Book Row. Her father took it over and grew the store — it currently has an inventory of more than 2.5 million books. Wyden explains the dramatic change in the bookselling industry with this sobering statistic: in the 1950s, New York City had 358 bookstores; presently, there are only 79.
Despite this grim statistic, there is hope for future generation to embrace book collecting. As one of the booksellers notes, “Many people think that collecting is just about high spots or first editions. The truth is the most interesting collections are built by people who see something that other people don’t see.” In an interview with The Guardian, Romney explained, “[The world of used books] is for anyone who is passionate about something. No matter who you are, no matter where you live, no matter what your education or background is — I want people to watch the film and say: ‘Oh, I could be part of this.’”
The documentary ends with a beautiful, eloquent ode to the book, a poem written and spoken by Henry Wessells, from his a short book of poems titled The Private Life of Books:
THE PRIVATE LIFE OF BOOKS by Henry Wessells
In silence between writer and reader
A memory of words and hands takes form.
We learn substance and worth through others’ eyes :
Cloth, flesh, ink, skin, paper, dust — these are but
Material forms in which ideas dwell.
In the roar of a crowded shelf of books
Desert sun and arctic night, distant seas
Of thought awaken, mingle, and are still.
Minds meet where the reading hand grasps the void
And inks its passage in empty margins.
Lost, forgotten, thumbed, split : we bear the scars
Of patient decades and centuries’ dreams.
Whose hands will next hold me I do not know —
The book, too, reads its readers in real time.
The book of poems was published in 2014 by Temporary Culture. The publisher recently printed a pocket-size edition. Special thanks to Henry Wessells for his kind permission to reprint his poem.
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For further reading: booksellersdocumentary.com
Book Row: An Anecdotal and Pictorial History of the Antiquarian Book Trade by Mavin Mondlin and Roy Meador
The Private Life of Books by Henry Wessells
Remarkable Books: The World’s Most Historic and Significant Works
Book Collecting Now: The Value of Print in a Digital Age by Matthew Budman