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The Booksellers is surely one of the coziest, most nostalgia-inducing titles at this year’s New York Film Festival. D.W. Young’s documentary explores the insular world of rare book dealers in New York City. There are a number of colorful characters on display, and they’re all obviously passionate about their field.
The most compelling figures are Adina Cohen, Naomi Hample, and Judith Lowry, three sisters who own the Argosy Book Store, a Midtown shop that’s been in their family since 1925. Argosy is a vital remnant of a rapidly vanishing New York, and the sisters’ dynamic is fascinating. With their intellect, grit, and quirky style, they’re quintessential Manhattan figures. The film’s main flaw is that not all its profiles have that kind of specificity. While it’s fun to see a wide range of dealers and collectors, some of the portraits feel perfunctory, as does the quick but necessary discussion of the field’s lack of diversity.
Another consummate New Yorker, the writer Fran Lebowitz, makes for a characteristically droll talking head on the changing trade. At one point she quips: “You know what they used to call indie bookstores? Bookstores.” That punchline is bittersweet. The Booksellers argues that rare books are still relevant in the digital age — perhaps even more than they were before, given our increasing disconnect from the physical world. At the same time, that argument is by now fairly familiar within intellectual milieus, and at the end of the day, rare books are still a commodity. As one dealer puts it, “Supply is limited … and demand is limited.” The Booksellers ably shows the beauty of its subject — shots of crowded shelves and leather-bound volumes are pretty much book porn — but its line of argument might benefit from a few more pages.