The Bookish Multitude: A review of D.W. Young’s “Booksellers”

Danielle Charette
22 May 2020

 

The release of Booksellers, now available for virtual screening, coincides with a nostalgia many of us feel for those days when we could freely browse the stacks. D. W. Young’s new documentary begins in earnest: “If books disappear, history will disappear, and human beings will also disappear.” But Booksellers is about a very specific sort of human being. Its subjects are not general readers, or even the people dedicated to their local indie store, but antiquarian dealers and their customers.

 

This subgroup makes for an eccentric cast of characters. First, we meet the dealer Dave Bergman. When Bergman’s not selling natural history books on the Upper West Side, he plays on seven separate amateur softball teams (and subs on an eighth). At his shop, Bergman treats us to a view of a 1907 photo album, Search for Mammoth, complete with authentic woolly mammoth hair. Then there’s Justin Schiller, who enjoyed a bout of teenage fame in 1964 as Columbia University’s youngest lender. Columbia librarians were curating an exhibit about the Wizard of Oz and needed first-editions of L. Frank Baum’s children’s books. Schiller, founder of the International Wizard of Oz Fan Club and then editor of the Baum Bugle, lent Columbia his copies. His firm, Justin G. Schiller Ltd., specializes in children’s literature to this day.

 

Booksellers begins at the New York International Antiquarian Book Fair, held in the Park Avenue Armory. As the British seller Ed Maggs poshly puts it, the annual fair is “slapbang in the middle of where you want to be on the Upper East Side.” New York’s rare-book market sits at the crossroads of Manhattan wealth and an old-world guild. But although there are a number of references to book-hunting in Europe, Booksellers is mostly a homage to Old New York—especially Book Row on 4th Avenue. In its heyday, Book Row boasted forty-eight shops. Only The Strand, which opened in 1927, is still standing (and Covid-19 has forced large layoffs over the past two months).

 

No one doubts that Internet sales and shortening attention spans have forced a crisis in the book trade. Most of the Book Row stores, however, had already closed or relocated by the 1960s. The scramble for New York real estate explains most of this shift. The three sisters who own Midtown’s Argosy Book Store—Adina Cohen, Naomi Hample and Judith Lowry—acknowledge they’ve survived because their father had the foresight to buy their six-story building, after he founded Argosy in 1925. The sisters are dogged enough about the family trade that they’ve kept Manhattan’s brokers at bay.

 

Stephen Massey, a self-proclaimed “third-generation antiquarian bookseller” from the United Kingdom, observes that American bookstores seem to fold after one generation. Asked how he first broke into the book trade, Massey answers, “nepotism.” His great-uncles’ store appears in James Joyce’s Dubliners (“Massey’s on Aston’s Quay), and his grandfather was present at the Sotheby’s auction when Lewis Carroll’s daughter first sold the Alice in Wonderland manuscript in 1928. Massey’s father started the book department at Christie’s, and Stephen himself auctioned Leonardo’s Codex Hammer in 1994, when Bill Gates paid a record-breaking $28 million for the manuscript.

 

Massey is right that his American peers have shorter pedigrees. Bergman, the softball fanatic, began in the book business during a part-time stint at a shop in Queens. He took the job shortly after saving up seventy-five dollars to buy the four-volume set of Elliott Coues’s The History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition that he spotted in the store window. And despite her firm’s ostentatious name, Bibi Mohamed started Imperial Fine Books out of her parents’ basement in Queens in the late 1980s. Mohamed’s daughters say they’re unlikely to carry on at Imperial Fine Books, which specializes in leather-bound sets and fine bindings. Mohamed admits that the rent she pays on Madison Avenue might be unsustainable.

 

The hereditary aspect says something about the profession. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville characterized literary life as a class-based activity. Only those never “obliged to concern themselves with material things” can love literature “for its own sake.” And yet, the antiquarian trade is all about the material object. Yes, it presumes a respect for literature, but the trade’s foremost concern is tracking down first-editions. Booksellers sometimes conflates loving literature with the livelihoods of people who traffic in rare dust-jackets.

 

The film tries to counter the antiquarian book trade’s tweedy reputation. We hear from younger American sellers, such as Rebecca Romney and Heather O’Donnell, who are keen on highlighting women’s contributions to the profession. Both Romney and O’Donnell hold membership in New York’s storied Grolier Club and want to break up the “old boys” network. Kevin Young, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, speaks passionately about the role collectors and curators play in preserving historical memory. But Booksellers never quite confronts the reality that collecting is pricey, and buying books isn’t the same as reading them.

 

One of the biggest-spenders in Booksellers is Jay Walker. His Walker Library of Human Imagination, among the largest private libraries in the world, takes its inspiration from the artist M. C. Escher. The books are arranged randomly by height to match the library’s spiral staircases. Walker describes the New York Antiquarian Book Fair as a “fantasy” because, “unlike going to the Morgan Library or New York Public or the Library of Congress, everything’s for sale.” Walker knows a thing or two about buying or selling. His company Walker Digital launched Priceline.com. For some reason, Booksellers does not mention this fact. Nor does the film provide much in the way of biography for its interviewees. This is unfortunate—not because viewers should begrudge Walker his fortune but because it might have been enlightening to learn why he decided to invest in books over more conventional luxury items, or how, as a businessman, Walker weighs a good book sale. Given his company’s role shaping our online marketplace, Walker surely has thoughts on changes to the book trade.

 

Another of the large-scale buyers, Michael Zinman, describes his strategy as the “critical-mess theory” of collecting. Zinman confesses, “I never questioned, if I had a book, about buying a second book, or a third book or a fourth copy…I just kept buying.” Booksellers never comments on how Zinman manages to fund his “critical-mess” methods. But a 2001 profile in the New Yorker fills in some of the details. Zinman chaired Earthworm Tractor Co. until the 1980s and spent his career selling used heavy machinery. His eye for repurposing old electoral turbines is perhaps revealing of his book-buying habits. For years, Zinman purchased books deemed “defective” by the professionals, only to later see their value soar, as scholars became increasingly interested in early American print culture.

 

Zinman is very American about his antiquarianism. At age 22, he purchased a three-volume octavo edition of J. J. Audubon’s “Quadrupeds of North America” on the installment plan. He specialized in purchases pertaining to natural history and developed a knack for early American print materials. Tocqueville complained that the American bookshops he visited in his travels brimmed with reprints of Bibles, textbook reprints from Europe, charity reports, and “pious anecdotes”—but not much in the way of true literature. This, however, is exactly the miscellany Zinman likes to buy. Mark Singer’s New Yorker piece records some of the items in the Zinman Collection, which he sold to the Library Company of Philadelphia in 2000 for $5 million. Among the ephemera were Cotton Mather’s account of the Salem witch trials, ten editions of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, and the first arithmetic schoolbook printed in the US.

 

Viewers curious about the relationship between private collecting and public research might have wished to hear from archivists at the Library Company regarding the Zinman acquisition. But Booksellers does a better job of accounting for how collectors interact with professional curators in its profile of Caroline Schimmel. Schimmel has amassed 25,000 items on America’s female “history makers.” Her collection showcases everything from Willa Cather first-editions to a Girl Scout manual from 1917 to Annie Oakley’s gloves. Schimmel, who has worked closely with archivists at the University of Pennsylvania and who holds degrees in English and library service, noticed that very few female authors garner attention at auction houses. Schimmel saw an absence in the archive and built a collection that is now a boon for scholars working on the American West and nineteenth-century feminism. In 2016, she donated 7,000 volumes of fiction to UPenn.

 

Another good example of how private collections can shape future academic study comes from the hip-hop archivist Syreeta Gates. Gates explains that our print source-material on hip-hop dates to music magazines from the 1980s and 90s. Many of these magazines predated online publication yet are too recent to have been digitized—or to have received the attention of cultural historians. Gates is among the collectors addressing this gap.

 

The real star of Booksellers is Fran Lebowitz. Unlike the other the interviewees, Lebowitz does not count herself as either a serious or seller. Instead, she plays the woman-about-town, delivering snappy one-liners on Manhattan manners. She grew up snooping around The Strand and buying forty-cent paperbacks at the 4th Avenue shops. The old-timers, Lebowitz says, “were very irritated if you wanted to buy a book.” They went into bookselling so they could sit out front and read all day. Lebowitz likes to attend book festivals but warns the dealers in advance that she doesn’t plan to go into debt over anything they’re peddling. (She is, however, protective of the merchandise. She reports her horror at once seeing a “cavalier” attendee balancing a beverage on a book.) Lebowitz has purportedly been working on a novel called Exterior Signs of Wealth since the mid-90s. Perhaps it will feature a few glass-stained leather bindings.

 

The greatest threat to the antique book trade is, of course, the Internet, which upended prices and altered our perception of what counts as “rare.” Unlike paintings, books are not one-of-a-kind. And the Web enables us to search and compare across different editions. Stumbling upon a first-edition Great Gatsby was more of a marvel in the 1980s. On the buyers’ end, the Web undermines the allure of the hunt. A collection that might have taken decades of digging through antique shops can now come together after forty-five minutes on AbeBooks. As for sellers, part of their craft depended on snapping up undervalued books at estate sales. Today, someone who unearths a tattered first edition of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Tamarlane” might do some quick Googling before giving it away.

 

Booksellers tries to turn this decline of the rare-book trade into a commentary about reading habits writ large, but we should resist the comparison. At its most macabre, the documentary likens a culture that allows the antiquarian market to dwindle to a culture that participates in book-burning—complete with reels of Nazis tossing literature into the flames. This is overwrought.

 

If the rare-book trade is changing, it’s partly because access to books is more abundant than ever. Yes, this abundance poses an economic problem for independent stores dependent on high-end sales—though the film never specifies what percentage of the trade this represents. As Bergman says, “You don’t spend $25,000 on a first edition of Moby Dick because you want to read Melville. It’s an object…and that’s what worries me about the future of the book trade.” But what’s a problem for the rare-book market need not discourage the average reader. For those who do wish to read some Melville, Moby Dick is out of copyright and a click away. Students looking for footnotes and some scholarly commentary can spring for the Norton (currently selling for $25.75 on Bookshop.org).

 

For most ma-and-pop stores, the loss of average customers to Amazon represents an urgent threat. Yet Booksellers is oddly silent about this phenomenon. Perhaps the typical secondhand shop shares the same fate as New York’s antiquarian dealers, in so far as both have to battle online prices. Or perhaps the antiquarians have outlasted the thrift-paperback stores because their clients are less inclined to bargain-shop. In any case, a documentary aiming to make the book trade accessible should have featured more down-market proprietors. Booksellers might have asked how the surviving shops manage to appeal to customers of more modest means.

 

Tocqueville noted that, while American readers “do not resemble their fathers” in their intellectual habits, it is “from this incoherent and agitated multitude that authors spring, and it is the same multitude that parcels out the profits and the glory.” Today’s book-market must grapple with that multitude.

 

Tocqueville saw that, democratic citizens, hard-pressed for time, would prefer books “that can be obtained easily and read quickly.” That means every great author has to compete against “thousands of retailers of ideas,” in what Tocqueville labeled the literary “industry.” Democratic readers are easier to please than aristocrats, yet their material is more “prodigious.” As Bergman says, the Internet has led to an “upswelling of stuff—be in books or Beanie Babies.” In this surge of supply, good ideas—and great authors—remain as rare as ever. Readers in democratic ages must wade through a lot of mediocre material. Maybe that makes collectors of us all.

 

Photo Credit: Darwin Vegher, via Unsplash.

 

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