The written word is sacred. That it is entombed in a special object tells us everything we need to know about the cultural reverence for words. The finest works are meant to last beyond generations, to create eternal documents of the present. There is simply nothing quite like the tangible association with a good book and the form we consume it in. No other physical good quite captures the same honor, is as likely to be as widely shared, and shows on its binding just how well-loved it has been in its lifetime. There is a devote group of booksellers who believe in the preservative power of literature whole cloth. Through documenting a select group of deeply committed connoisseurs, D.W. Young’s The Booksellers hopes to build its own document of meta-preservation, catching a culture amid a confusing generational gap with dramatically different ideas about how things are going to be done.
At the center of The Booksellers, there is a grinding cultural conflict. The aged group of booksellers has little faith in their Millennial contemporaries. They believe an entire generation is consumed with the impending digitization of their culture. These booksellers have seen their entire hobby democratized for the lowest bidder. Online sales and chain stores have made the good old hunt for a rare or specialty item almost trivial. They say, hand over your credit card, and anyone can obtain a run of first editions of their favorite author, at the right price. An overreliance on technology has irrevocably shifted the focus of their peculiar hobby. The case the documentary builds about them is that they are contrary people by nature, and so will not adapt cleanly with the fast moving currents of new trends.
However, contrary to their own belief, the book business is burgeoning with a Millennial clientele. The stats are proving a new generation more likely to buy their books in a physical format, while the older generation has taken to Kindles and like markets, and are more likely to be aged out of the business, than the traditional model. There is a compelling clash in differences of ideals at the movie’s center. It does not find any kind of outcome or potential answers, but offers many perspectives, to show the reality of the current scene.
What works wonders in the picture is an emphasis on diverse collecting. We sit with women collectors, who fill their personal collections with the finest ephemera of women’s literature. We explore the often unconsidered spaces of African American collection, catering to the culture of early Hip Hop writing. Someone must document every avenue of a scene, or it may be lost to the history of print. We spend a good deal of time exploring the specialized aesthetics of personal collections like an M.C. Escher-inspired library that is an ode to the history of the literary imagination. The spaces sing with the unlimited promise of education, that an entire library of letters can provide the greatest breadth of human invention and intellect.
If there is any problem, it is what does not happen. We do not truly get to know the people behind the collections. They are, of course, bookish, and reserved on camera. At a party they will say, let’s put the camera away, you may want two hands to drink; they are not very engaged or interested in the process of the film. We get their best side they are willing to show: what their selections of specialized literature say about them as people. The Booksellers does not pierce any segment of its subject or search for deeper meaning, it is an examination of the hobby on its face, and that is perfectly fine.
What we arrive at is a series of folks extremely immersed in hobby. They live through the passions of the page. As readers, we must naturally understand what they mean. Anyone who’s encountered a great book could know. The way it shapes us as people, expands our perspective to unknown outer-reaches. There is nothing like it. As one of our booksellers state, a book is the closest we can come to humanity. For the subjects of the documentary, absorbing the purpose and function of their collections is the formal display of their humanity.