Library of America readers know that looking at someone’s bookshelves can tell you a lot about that person, including his or her intellectual interests, personal passions, and/or political worldview. But what does it say when a person’s bookshelves hold tens—or hundreds—of thousands of valuable, one-of-a-kind volumes?
Opening this Friday, March 6, at New York City’s Quad Cinema (and in theaters nationwide in subsequent weeks), D. W. Young’s new documentary The Booksellers offers exactly this type of fascinating glimpse into the collections of some of NYC’s most enthusiastic buyers and sellers of rare books. If you’re a fan of Library of America, you’ll feel right at home as The Booksellers takes its viewers on a tour from the Grolier Club to the Strand, from the NY International Antiquarian Book Fair to the private apartments of collectors who are “part scholar, part detective, and part businessperson,” as the film’s press release puts it.
Along the way, the documentary offers intimate viewings of rare items: valuable first editions, multimillion-dollar auctions, books bound in human skin, early hip-hop ephemera, and a photo album containing actual woolly mammoth hair.
Also included in the film’s lineup of collectors are a number of writers, scholars, and collectors who are good friends of LOA. The late William Reese, a former LOA board member, reflects on the disruptive impact that the internet has had on the antiquarian book business. Fran Lebowitz, featured in LOA’s 50 Funniest American Writers anthology, recalls getting into trouble for crawling around bookstores in her youth—a habit that she admits remains unbroken. Susan Orlean, whose work appears in the same collection, talks about the important decision to archive her notes, research, New Yorker stories, and other literary materials at an academic library. Kevin Young, Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and editor of LOA’s forthcoming anthology of African American poetry, discusses the underappreciated role that institutional collections play in “telling the story of Black people’s existence” in America. Rare book dealer Heather O’Donnell, the featured guest at a recent LOA Members event, explains the importance of supporting and encouraging young women book collectors. And Henry Wessels showcases his collection of science fiction materials, which we interviewed him about in 2018, when Wessells curated an exhibition drawn from his collection at the Grolier Club.
What makes The Booksellers so endearing, however, isn’t its impressive lineup of talking heads or its glimpses into world-class book collections. The documentary is special because at its core is something familiar to so many avid readers: a simple yet potent appreciation for a beautiful book in one’s hand or on one’s shelf.
Watch the trailer below (2:00):