Breathing New Life into Old Books

March 20, 2020 | 7 min read

Books are constantly being made into movies, but rarely is a movie actually about books—let alone the people who sell them. Earlier this month, The Booksellers, a documentary on the antiquarian book trade and the buyers and sellers of rare books, hit theaters to overall acclaim, and while the film is very much about its characters, it’s also about the trade as a whole, and how it’s surviving in an era of dizzying technological advancement.

We spoke to the film’s director, D.W. Young, about how the movie came about and what the future of the rare book world looks like to him.

The Millions: How did this project come about?

D.W. Young: The very first idea for the project came from our producer Dan Wechsler, who is also a prominent rare book dealer. He has also done some film work, and he and Judith Mizrachy, our other producer and my partner and my wife, and we’ve worked together on lots of things over the years. She had worked with Dan on something, we’d all kind of worked together on some projects like eight or nine years ago and become friends. We were talking about future projects and he mentioned he’d always thought a documentary about the rare book world would be a great idea. It had never been done. And from his perspective from inside the book world, he had a lot of ideas. And Judith and I immediately agreed that it was a great idea. We each had some peripheral sense of the rare book world, we’re both people who love books. So we enthusiastically agreed. But we were all tied up in other projects at the time and we didn’t really get to it until about three years ago when we were actually working on something else which hit a standstill. So at that time I said, you know what, I think this would be a great moment to pursue the rare book idea. And so we did.

TM: How did the process of reporting it go?

DWY: Dan provided some shortcuts. He got us to some people sooner and easier and kinda got the ball rolling faster than it might’ve. I think we would’ve gotten to the same place in a lot of respects left to our own devices. But it would have been more work and taken longer. And in a few cases he helped get some people on board who might’ve been reluctant or taken a lot more cajoling. But in terms of the reporting, I think with something like this, it’s a kind of organic process where you have things in mind but you also need to be receptive to it being a learning experience and kind of discovering things as you go. I was doing research on my own and, and talking to people also, and that’s kind of how I was acquainting myself with this world. So first, I think we wanted to talk to a certain base of people and from there, certain connections started being made about what was possible and a sense of how many aspects of the trade we could fit into a movie started to clarify. Then it gets a little more interesting when you start to try and fit people in a more specific way. That became about thinking of a further set of dealers—certain collectors who would be complimentary to what we already had, and a few external voice, Fran Liebowitz being one and Susan Orlean being another. It’s a building process.

TM: What was one of the things that you learned along the way that surprised you or changed the way that you were looking at the rare book world, or even just how you would frame it in the film?

Rare book dealer Adam Weinberger appraises books at a residence in Manhattan in The Booksellers.

DWY: One thing that I really was not so aware was how much the trade handles material that’s not just books or paper, although that’s still the dominant component of what people in the rare book trade transact with. But I didn’t realize how much ephemera and other historically relevant material could fall under the umbrella of the rare book trade. We saw 19th-century board games from France and enigma machines from World War II, certain photography, and other material.

TM: Did you find the breadth of the trade surprising?

DWY: Absolutely. I was super enthusiastic when I realized that hip hop magazines and that kind of material was starting to become part of the rare book world. And I was very excited to bring it into the film, because hip hop is an enormously important cultural factor. But I think the very key point is that it’s not albums themselves as musical collectibles, as music, that it’s relevant to the rare book world. It’s historical significance. The magazines that Syreeta Gates collects, many of them haven’t even been digitized yet. You would think they would be, but even so, they haven’t. The understanding of the historical context of say the eighties and the nineties is important. To further enhance the context of our historical understanding of that period, there’s great value to collecting that stuff. I needed stuff like that for the film, the more recent stuff, the zines and stuff like that. It seems like it was just yesterday, but it’s kind of in the rear view mirror already. And it weirdly falls into the rare book trade.

TM: The rare book business is heavily white and male, even today. But the types of books being collected are obviously not just about the history of white culture, but about the history of everything. Knowing that, do you think there’s a possibility for more diversification in this side of the business?

DWY: I think so, and I think that’s really the position of a number the younger dealers, who are very smart, and they really advocate that belief, and I think it is expressed in the film. From what I’ve seen, I think it seems to have a lot of merit. The rare book trade is not an institution. No one’s in charge of it. It’s comprised of just a bunch of individuals. Most of them have a shop that’s just them or maybe one other person or a couple of helpers. So there’s no clear path to adding diversity to the trade at the higher end. We focused on established dealers who were generally fairly established in the higher echelons of the market. Adding more diversity there, it’s not like some of those dealers who are now older have not been at the forefront of providing access to a lot of interesting material that is diverse. They’ve helped bring new collectors and new institutional interest to all kinds of material. That said, I have to clarify that I feel like I’m still very much an outsider’s perspective on this. But I think that’s one of the things with Syreeta collecting hip hop magazines, or some of the stuff that Arthur Fournier collects in the film, that’s clearly speaking to a different generation than your traditional model collector from the past. I think that there’s good reason to believe that the more that material stretches out into encompassing more and more kinds of things that will hopefully lead to some more diversity in the trade. There’s a potential I think for a broadening of the trade—who engages in it—that could go hand in hand with a broadening of what’s collectible.

TM: What’s something you weren’t able to explore in the film that you wish you could have?

DWY: One thing I never got a satisfactory answer to, and I don’t think there is a right answer, but I kinda think is really interesting as far as institutions are concerned—and also collectors, but even more so institutions—is, to what degree do the dealers influence what’s considered new and interesting and collectible, by being at the forefront, and what degree are they responding to the institutions and the collectors and their own groundbreaking interests. I think, ultimately, it’s a two way street. Both things are happening simultaneously, and each instance is different of why and to what degree. The dealers of course probably feel a little more strongly about what they’re bringing to the table, and I’m sure the librarians feel the opposite. But I think it’s interesting that there’s a kind of dialogue that’s going on there. It’s kind of too complicated a thing to get into a documentary, but in other kinds of discourse, it would be interesting to delve into further.

In terms of a specific scene, one dealer who appeared in the film, Dave Bergman, showed me these amazing catalogs from the late 1800s, I’m guessing, of fittings—like, the brass and other fittings—for caskets and funeral materials. It’s just an entire catalog of brass fittings and stuff. There’s no comparison for today. That doesn’t exist anymore, a lot of what’s in this catalog. And no one 30 years ago likely thought that this was very interesting at all. But we’ve changed our appreciation for how that could speak to us historically, or be collectible. I looked at that and thought it was really interesting how something can go from being literally something someone would throw on the fire to having value. It’s just a question of people seeing it differently.

TM: At the end of The Booksellers, the rare book sellers weigh in on how they see the future of the trade—some are hopeful, some are not. How do you feel about the future of rare bookselling?

DWY: I feel like I’m somewhere in the middle. That said, I choose to feel positive, insofar as it is a matter of choice. I think at the end of the day, having to go one direction or another, I would choose to take the positive approach. If your experts are that down the middle, sometimes I think just the act of believing is what tips the scales. What’s more interesting to me is how little anyone agree on this point in the book trade. You could get book dealers talking about this endlessly. The degree of uncertainty in the moment is kind of the most compelling factor in the end. We’re really in this moment where everyone is so uncertain about this. It’s reflective of the technological zeitgeist as well. Everything in our world is in flux at an increasingly rapid rate. The rare book trade is certainly not a mirror of society as a whole, but it’s undergoing many similar changes to those that are happening elsewhere. It’s interesting, I think, to compare that experience of this one very specific world to the larger world beyond. Where are they similar? Where do they diverge in their responses to some of these changes. Regarding diversity and the book trade, for instance, I think it’s interesting to see how that relates to questions and issues of diversity in society at large, and the push for that. For the younger dealers, there is a great sense of passion and importance placed upon that. One of the functions of a documentary is to exist as a historical record of the time and place in which it’s being made. Obviously that’s something we hope the film does.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

is digital editor and associate news editor at Publishers Weekly and co-founder and editor of The Dot and Line. He has written for New York magazine, Esquire, Pacific Standard, Thrillist, Paste, Polygon, and Real Simple, among others.

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