The Booksellers

At the end of his acceptance speech for the Oscar he and Diana Ossana won for their adaptation of Annie Proulx’s short story Brokeback Mountain (2005), Larry McMurtry, clad in a tux jacket and jeans, gave a shout-out to America’s independent booksellers. 

It was also a muted cri de coeur. Less than a decade earlier, the indie-bookstore killer Barnes & Noble had made its first public stock offering. A few years after McMurtry gave his remarks, Barnes & Noble rolled out its e-reader, Nook, and shortly thereafter, Amazon’s Kindle started posing another challenge to the historical primacy of the printed book and the country’s independent booksellers and book dealers.

This threat is one of the main themes of an engaging new documentary by D.W. Young titled The Booksellers

The film’s tone, however, is not one of doom and gloom. Rather, it is a deft, wry look at the idiosyncratic men and women who sell books in Manhattan, including the sidewalk hawkers with their ragged, used books sans covers, like the guy who for years has staked out the sidewalk outside 67 Wine & Spirits on Columbus Avenue near my apartment. His table is visible at far right in this photo from 2008:

The venerable Strand Book Store is a still-standing mecca, the Alamo of the several dozen Fourth Avenue bookshops from pre-World War II. The Strand is where you can find unread “readers’ copies” of yet-unpublished books.

There are also the three sisters holding down their six-story literary chapel, the Argosy Book Store, at 116 E. 59th St., as well as a legion of private dealers working out of their cluttered apartments. The most obsessed ones have spent tens of thousands of dollars reinforcing their floors to carry the weight of thousands of volumes, a testament to their own collecting mania. And most of their trove is not for sale, notes satirist and book lover Fran Lebowitz, one of the documentary’s interviewees.

Later in the documentary, Lebowitz injects a real upbeat note when she counters the cliché of iPhone-addicted, social-media-obsessed young people hypnotized by miniscule screens — by affirming that she sees signs of a print renaissance on subways and buses, where so many younger readers turn pages of real books. Of course, Lebowitz’s world is Manhattan, a mecca for self-defined artists and intellectuals.

One of the Argosy Book Store sisters says that in the 1950s, there were 368 bookstores in Manhattan. Today there are 79, and it would seem that many of them are boutique and specialty venues, labors of love recently opened by adventurous, young entrepreneurs.

I recall my own early days of book browsing in 1960s Los Angeles. All booksellers then were “independent.” One, on Hollywood Boulevard, was Pickwick Books (closed in 1968), the province of founder Louis Epstein; it was bought out by a smaller “chain” called Dalton Books. Dawson Books, set back from the street on the west side of Larchmont Boulevard (after moving from its original site on Grand Avenue downtown), was a prime source for California history and photography, as was Cherokee Books, a haven for obscure books on indigenous American culture that was located near The Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard. Larry Edmunds Bookshop is still standing catty-corner from Musso & Frank’s, the legendary show-biz eatery now celebrating its centennial year. But in the history of L.A. book dealers, special pride of place must be given to Jake Zeitlin, who for about 60 years was a book seller in many locales and a dynamic force in the city’s world of literature and art. In his barn structure on the west side of La Cienega Boulevard, near the famed Ferus Gallery, he gave landmark exhibitions to local artists as part of the “Zeitlin Circle,” as well as exhibitions of prints by noted European avant-garde artists. 

Jacob Zeitlin in 1978 (Photo by Amanda Blanco)
Jacob Zeitlin in 1978 (Photo by Amanda Blanco)

A passionate defender of freedom of speech, Zeitlin testified in the Supreme Court case over Henry Miller’s controversial novel Tropic of Cancer. But his leftist bona fides were evident even earlier, when he served as campaign manager for Helen Gahagan Douglas in her 1950 U.S. Senate run against “Tricky Dick” Nixon.

A not-unexpected revelation in The Booksellers is that many of the dealers and sellers are also manic “collectors.” That may be a generous way of putting it; many are veritable packrats of disparate sensibilities, from informal scholars of incunabula to hoarders who pride themselves on amassing any kind of printed trivia, including grocery lists. Nor are their obsessions limited to print — in the film, odd sculptures and knickknacks loom over their shelves as backdrop to their interviews. One exemplar, Zack, is an employee at Argosy. Here he is with some of the 11,012 baseballs he has snagged at Major League games:

Another case in point is bookseller Dave Bergman, who proudly displays a 1907 photo-monograph book of Mammoth fossils found in Alaska. He proudly notes that one page displays wisps of actual Mammoth hair.

Whatever image you might have of the traditional, tweed-jacketed bookseller will be dispelled by this rich group portrait of men and women who are custodians of the printed word, whether it’s a signed first edition by airport best-seller Clive Cussler or a singular treasure of high Western culture such as the Book of Kells, which I was viewing at Trinity College in Dublin at the moment the first plane struck the World Trade Center on 9/11.

The Booksellers has been released in New York and is scheduled to open in L.A. at the Laemmle Royal on April 3. Information about other engagements can be found here.

NPR recently reviewed the film: an unabashed rave.

And Owen Gleiberman’s Variety review notes the enduring magic of the printed book:

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.

There is sacerdotal value in the very idea of protecting the printed book. It can be seen in my post about the world’s most beautiful libraries, which includes a few details about my own very limited adventures in the trade.

We abhor the book burnings of May 10, 1933, in 34 university towns in Germany. And there are few greater losses in the history of libraries than the April 29, 1986, fire at the Los Angeles Central Library — 400,000 volumes were destroyed. It is a story told by Susan Orlean, another interviewee in The Booksellers, in her recent page-turner, The Library Book

A glimpse of the aftermath of the Los Angeles Central Library fire in 1986.
A glimpse of the aftermath of the Los Angeles Central Library fire in 1986.

We all treasure that final scene in François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 showing “book people” wandering through a snowy forest, reciting their book from memory (truly living in the oral tradition of Homer) until the prevailing darkness is dispelled and books are printed once again.


The Pipa and the Kamancheh


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