Interview: D.W. Young on Creating a Real Page Turner with “The Booksellers”

“The world is divided between people who collect things and people who don’t know what the hell they’re thinking,” someone says early in D.W. Young’s “The Booksellers,” a sprightly look inside the rare and antiquarian book trade in New York where one can completely understand both sides of that equation. First setting foot inside the Park Avenue Armory’s 55,000-square foot drill hall for the city’s annual Antiquarian Book Fair, the film is liable to cause the heart to race much like it does for any of the collectors that have gathered to pore over hardbacks and other obscure and coveted items from centuries past, on display before finding new homes, priced anywhere from a few bucks to tens of thousands of dollars. While the books’ renewed monetary value can be eye popping, Young fans out to find something even more revelatory as he follows dealers sifting through estate sales and interviews the likes of Fran Leibowitz and Susan Orlean, coming to view the decisions made by the collectors now in terms of what they find worth in shaping the way that history is told when so much of the printed word is falling away in the digital age.

Young captures a precarious moment for the book trade when, as the Strand Bookstore owner Nancy Wyden Bass estimates, New York is down to 79 bookstores from its peak of 368, a shortfall caused by the seemingly endless supply of books one can find online after less than a few seconds of searching. But in visiting those still standing like the six-story Argosy in the heart of Midtown and newer shops such as Honey & Wax Booksellers in Brooklyn, “The Booksellers” celebrates the kinds of discoveries that are impossible to make online and captures the thrill of the hunt for the people who make it their life’s mission to uncover overlooked gems and oddities, ranging from first editions of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Tamerlane,” of which only a handful were even printed let alone survived, to books bound with human skin (even rarer, as one would hope). The film is broad in scope, but offers a striking perspective on how history is made, not only in what texts its subjects find valuable enough to preserve, but in how context is created and access changes over time and besides offering an array of interesting characters, “The Booksellers” suggests that while the realm of book collecting remains in the hands of a few, its impact on the larger culture can be profound.

Following the its premiere at the New York Film Festival last fall, “The Booksellers” was scheduled to rollout to theaters this past month, playing only a few days in its home city before the coronavirus shut everything down, and now the film is being made available in virtual engagements on VOD, making it possible to support your local theater while watching it from the safety of home. After this change in plans, Young was kind enough to talk about the genesis of the film, why he was always excited about the cinematic possibilities of its subject matter and how recent events have illuminated the enduring value that books have.

How did you get interested in this? I understand your producer Dan Wechsler may have given you the nudge.

Dan’s a rare book dealer as well as somebody involved in film, so he wears a few hats and about seven years ago, he mentioned to Judith Mizrachy and I over lunch that he always thought a film about the book world would be a good idea. Notably, it had never been done and he knew it intimately, so he had some good starting ideas. Judith and I had also already been to the antiquarian book fair in New York before, so we also had a bit of a sense of the visual potential, which at first glance I think some people wouldn’t recognize, and my aunt and uncle were book dealers, so we had a sense of the wonderful, colorful people you can find in the book world. We all agreed it was a great idea, but we didn’t act on it right away [since] were all tied up with other projects, but then three years ago, we started filming it officially.

Did it actually feel like the right time to be making this? I’ve heard in other interviews you say that you were concerned about some of the older generation passing, but at the same time, you do see a new wave in the film.

Yeah, I think so. Dan was very conscious of this [necessity] because he knew a lot of the older dealers and had seen some pass away that would’ve been great people to talk to had we been doing this 10 or 15 years ago, so it was a starting consideration to try and capture that last pre-internet generation. And even though I think we’re now at the tail-end of the internet’s impact on the book trade, it still was very much a moment where we’re still in it to some degree, so addressing that was important. It was really going to be critical to include younger dealers to really get a sense of where things were headed, so that really grew into a more and more key aspect of what we were doing was to include a number of the younger dealers.

You actually confront the question of ongoing viability of the book trade almost immediately before showing what a rich world this still is, which surprised me. Was the film difficult to structure when there’s no obvious narrative spine to latch onto as you follow a variety of subjects?

Yeah, as any film does that doesn’t have a strong narrative thread or structure, I always wanted the film to feel loose on a certain level, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot going on behind the scenes. There are a bunch of structural elements that we used to give it some shape and give a sense of progression even though it’s not linear and a certain amount of that developed organically through the process of making the film. Certainly the fact it was never going to have a central protagonist was a starting point, but I liked the notion that we would start and end with the book fair, so it’s almost very off-the-cuff year in the life of the book trade, and there’s some quotations which I figured would be inevitable in a film like this about books and language, that provide a little bit of structure. The film is really bookended by something that I did add in later, which are the two montage sequences set to a poem at the end and this excerpt from Susan Sontag at the beginning that for me was a more poetic intro and exit to the film. It’s a bit of an ode to the books themselves and to the degree to which the film talks about how these books have endured and they outlive their owners and last centuries.

I didn’t want it to feel like the structure is throwing itself in your face because I I hope you can fall into the world and there’s the highlighted dealers that we spent a little more time with, and they answer a lot of the same questions, but in their own unique way, so I came to think of them as jazz soloists in the structure of the film, if that makes sense.

Was the book fair where you first actually met a lot of your subjects?

Yes and no. There’s some off-the-cuff interviews there, which is really great, which [actually] wasn’t so easy to do in the format of the film, and it was a chance to meet a lot of international dealers, although they were not necessarily the focus of the film [since] the film’s New York focused, but it was a way to peek at the larger scale of the rare book world. We interviewed Ed Maggs from the venerable firm of Maggs Brothers in London, which goes back many generations because he was in town for the book fair, and [in general] it was a great way to just immerse ourselves in a little broader sense with a lot of different dealers, so that was very helpful.

Was there any direction this took you in that you weren’t expecting at the start?

One thing I was not so aware of at the start is how much ephemera and rare objects are part of the rare book trade, so that was a learning experience. We did Victorian board games and all kinds of photography that’s of historical value. At one point, you see an auction where an Enigma machine from World War II is being auctioned off and that’s under the antiquarian and rare books umbrella. We actually didn’t include the footage [of this], but we had some really cool footage of someone at an auction house presenting how an enigma machine works, which I found very fascinating, but I just found it was too hard to fit in.

This is silly, but being around all these rare items in order to film them, did you have to be careful?

For the most part, I didn’t handle anything too valuable. [laughs] But what’s interesting is most of these books are meant to be handled and their pages turned, unless they’re in really advanced decay or they’re so fragile you can’t do that. You can still handle them fairly freely and most dealers don’t mind as long as you’re responsible and careful. We were fortunate that as a rare book dealer, Dan has a lot of books in his stock, so we were able to tap into his inventory for a good bit of visuals, more easily than having to bother all the dealers all the time. What made me the most nervous was when a dealer was showing us a map at the antiquarian book fair that was $300,000 or something and it was in very delicate, fragile shape that looked like to me that it would rip in half. I didn’t want to touch that because once it’s ripped, it’s not worth $300,000 anymore. [laughs]

You mentioned being excited about the visual possibilities. How did you go about translating that excitement onscreen?

We employed a bunch of macrophotography to try and get up close and personal [to capture] the workmanship and the quality of the different types of materials that were used to make these books and other items over the centuries. It really is interesting comparing an illuminated, hand-drawn manuscript from the 17th century to the kind of book jackets you see once you hit the 20th century. There’s such an incredibly broad range of books and kinds of books made in different ways with different visual elements, so there’s a tremendous amount to pull from. That’s why when I talked about when Judith and I went to the antiquarian book fair for the very first time, it was all on display and coming out of that, we [thought] visually that’s an overwhelming experience. It’s more than you can take in, to be quite honest. And if you look at the Instagram pages for a lot of these dealers, you can just get lost in the rare book industry. It’s really amazing, so I if anything, there was just too much visual material and you could just keep going forever if you had the time and money and the patience.

Was it a challenge to capture that feeling in a lot of those tight spaces you were filming inside with those walls of books?

What I wanted to get across is there is a feeling if you devote your life to books in this way, if you’re the collector acquiring them for yourself or a dealer where [the books are] just constantly passing through your hands, it can also be overwhelming personally, like books, books, books all the time everywhere, you’re just surrounded by them, so I feel we did want to convey a sense of that, and we just tried with each space to approach the space as its own sort of challenge with our limited means of whatever tools we had. Often time was very limited and sometimes that was a blessing and sometimes not [because] you have to improvise everything. When we did Jay Walker’s Library of the Human Imagination [in Ridgefield, Connecticut], which has the [M.C.] Escher-esque glass, the multilevels and the books all organized randomly by height, we had very little time after the interview to get the B-roll, so we were just grabbing everything we could in about 25 minutes. I think we used every single piece of B-roll we shot, so nothing was left on the cutting room floor.

You captured that space beautifully. The film also reconstructs what appears to be a largely hidden history regarding women’s roles in the book trade as well as what history could leave behind when it comes to minority publications that haven’t been able to make the leap to digital – was it difficult to seek out when there may not be much evidence of it?

It’s a conversation that’s happening very actively in the book trade, particularly with the younger generations, so beyond my own desire to look at this history from a modern, present viewpoint, it was something the book dealers wanted to talk about. For example, Heather [O’Donnell] and Rebecca [Romney of Wax and Honey] are keen on helping bring about a reconsideration of the role of women in the trade, maybe not always as business owners as Rebecca points out in the film, but as very, very important catalogers and people working slightly more behind the scenes, so [that conversation] was there to such a degree that it would’ve been dishonest of us, even if we didn’t want to do it ourselves, not to acknowledge. Also particularly where the trade is heading and what collecting is going to be like in the future, it is really branching out significantly from the traditional collecting models.

What I think the younger generation is feeling is that if they’re going to be optimistic about the future, this [diversity] has to be part of it — the idea that there will be more and different things to bring into the fold that’ll excite newer people to be involved. That will keep the trade from shrinking as the interest in certain kinds of older books may generationally not be there. If you want to talk about historically rare book dealing at the turn of the 20th century, yes, it’s a completely rich, white male canonical literature kind of situation – western intellectual history, mainly, and there’s value in all that obviously — as Arthur Fournier says in the film, it’s not to discredit the importance of preserving and looking at that material, but it’s just not to limit it to that. That’s why for me, Syreeta [Gates] and her hip-hop archiving I was really excited to include in the film [because] I love ‘90s hip hop. It was important music to me and culturally it is enormously important that it be recognized and archived and preserved, and she and Arthur have worked together, so [including that] just felt like it was a natural progression of what we were doing [in the film].

Before the coronavirus cut short the theatrical run, it did get to play in New York for a short while in addition to its premiere at the New York Film Festival last fall. What was it like seeing it with the local crowd?

It really played great at the New York Film Festival, so that was really wonderful and our theatrical opening in New York was nice to see while it lasted that people were very enthusiastic about coming to the theater to see it. People come up to me after screenings just with a lot of memories of all the bookstores in New York, but we’ve screened it outside of New York and just because the movie is set in New York, it doesn’t seem like it’s limiting people’s interest in it. Most of the major American cities have [bookstores] and what was very important to get into the film on some level is that for those of us who care about bookstores, I think we all acutely feel they’re an important part of the urban landscape — and in small towns too, [where] they’re important in a different way because usually they’re only one. But that feeling of knowing you can always walk into a bookstore, they’re part of why you live in a city on some level if you’re a certain kind of person and our cities are lesser places for the diminishment of the number of bookstores. A lot of people have come up to me to share that sentiment…

Living in this time particularly, it feels like you can see clearly how important these establishments are in our lives.

Yeah, I’m really worried about the future for so many intellectual and cultural venues and institutions going forward in the arts — movie theaters and bookstores in particular, how they’re going to be able to weather this is really of great concern. Obviously, anything we can do to support them is worth it, but the irony is of course we made a movie about how important physical books are and the serendipity of that browsing experience, and now we’re in a moment where it’s the one time where you say if you can get a digital book instead of a physical one, okay. Better than nothing. [laughs]

Then again, we’re also seeing what happens when wi-fi falters…

Well, that’s the funny thing. This puts into perspective that if all the computers go down and our digital world collapsed, the books would still work perfectly, right? There’s something comforting about that that human achievement, knowledge, great works of art, etc wouldn’t all fall by the wayside. Unfortunately all the work I’ve done as a filmmaker would probably be gone…

I’m in the same boat as a online-only writer.

You need to get some print-outs of your articles.

You may have just inspired me to take some time to do that.

Print out the good stuff, right?

Yeah, I can definitely leave out some of it…

We all have a few things we could just leave out of the record at the end of the day. [laughs]

“The Booksellers” is now available to watch at home here.

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