Matt Zoller Seitz on Digging Into the Fine Print of MZS World Store

Recently, Matt Zoller Seitz was lying on his back, trying to get the perfect angle. Two stacks’ worth of Sarah Welch-Larson’s book “Becoming Alien: The Beginning and End of Evil in Science Fiction’s Most Idiosyncratic Film Franchise” had arrived at the house and he was giddy with excitement as he prepared to take a picture to post to social media with no less glam involved than a Jennifer Lopez fashion shoot, hanging an emerald green drape over the background and arranging a desk lamp in such a way to give the impression it had emerged from Acheron, with his son and his girlfriend looking on.

“I’m holding my phone to try to get an ominous, low angle and trying to get the right composition, and [my son’s girlfriend is] like, ‘What is going on with your Dad?’” laughs Seitz. “If I had a storefront, I would be one of those people who went nuts with the window displays. It’d be three in the morning and I’d be designing a Chestburster.”

A physical store may not be as far off as he thinks, but it’s remarkable what Seitz has already done with MZS Worldstore, an online bookstore available to all that any cinephile would love to have in their neighborhood, replicating the feeling so thoroughly of a beloved corner store that you’ll often go searching for one book and lose track of time browsing before leaving with something else entirely. Although he could’ve had a bountiful array of titles simply from the books he’s written, from the creative and comprehensive career overviews for Wes Anderson and Oliver Stone to his collaborations with Rolling Stone TV critic Alan Sepinwall, the TV critic for New York Magazine and editor-at-large for RogerEbert.com has generously used the platform he created and the powerful bullhorn of his Twitter feed to boost others’ work, appealing directly to readers invested in specific film and TV niches, creating awareness for titles from lower-profile publishers and presenting them in such a way no general retailer would think of.

“We probably sell 10 times as many books of an extremely specific type, as a lot of the major chain outlets would, so it’s great to be able to prolong the life of — and in some cases resuscitate — books that are thought of as dead,” says Seitz, who recalls his “Mad Men Carousel” sell a respectable 20 to 30 copies a week at Barnes and Noble, but has since sold hundreds on his own site. “‘Pain Don’t Hurt [Meditations on ‘Road House’]’ is a book that Sean Collins had self-published in hardcover a year ago, and he sent me a signed copy of it, just out of the blue because we’re friends, and I wrote him back and said, ‘This is an absolutely marvelous book. Can we carry it?’ It was a limited run, so he’s like, “We’d have to print more copies. Let me talk to my publisher,” but they did and basically, we’re the primary outlet for this terrific book.”

Seitz was inspired to start MZS Worldstore by his late wife Nancy Dawson, a shrewd businesswoman in her own right who founded the makeup artist collective BRIDEface and the nonprofit Transform Cincy in Cincinnati. Noticing a potential profit margin in the discounted rate that publishers give to authors to buy copies of their own books, she suggested buying in bulk and selling copies that would still fall below the regular retail rate, making it competitive with even Amazon and as an added bonus, every book would come signed by the author.

Stock started flying out of the makeshift warehouse Seitz had set up in his garage, particularly after the pandemic created a captive audience looking for reading material. With his kids James and Ella taking care of shipping and receiving, Hannah keeping the Instagram looking pristine and Phoebe running inventory — all getting paid for their time, he assures — he was able to handle the surge at the holidays, though it encouraged him to enlist a close friend Judith Carter, who lives in Dallas, to serve as the store’s executive director to manage day-to-day operations.

Scaling up the business is only more likely to accurately reflect Seitz’s breadth of knowledge and curiosity in the bookstore’s curation rather than dilute it. What began as a selection of around 40 titles has swelled to over 500, with older, out of print titles and small press gems entering the mix, all taking root in films and TV but extending into unexpected realms. You can find such essential works of criticism such as Molly Haskell’s “From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in Film” and deep dives into individual films such as Walter Chaw’s compelling look back at Steve deJarnett’s cult classic “Miracle Mile” as well as sophisticated art books such as Matt Singer’s “Marvel’s Spider-Man: From Amazing to Spectacular” and coloring books for “Star Wars.” The accessibility prized by Seitz isn’t only reflected in the diverse stock he keeps or the prioritizing of paperbacks to keep the price point affordable, but ideas as well when titles about a certain movie or TV show open up other avenues of thought and expression.

“How far can I get from the identity of the store without losing that identity is the challenge,” says Seitz, who had fantasized about how he would organize his own bookstore since working at one in college and now able to have sprawling sections devoted to Kaiju and specific directors. “For example, now I’m carrying fiction and poetry. The only stipulation is it has to be fiction and poetry that is somehow related to film and TV. For example, I have a Mad Men collection [that] includes my own book and others about ‘Mad Men,’ but the vast majority of titles in that collection are things like “Stories of John Cheever,” Frank O’Hara’s “Meditations in an Emergency,” “Planet of the Apes,” Dante’s “Inferno” and “Atlas Shrugged,” which is a book that I would never in a million years carry and I hate Ayn Rand, but Bert Cooper wouldn’t shut up about it on “Mad Men,” so therefore, it has to be on the list.”

For as much the bookstore reflects Seitz’s personal tastes, this is someone who can’t help but foster communities wherever he goes, helping to found the Split Screens Television Festival in New York and always ready with words of encouragement for other writers on social media, meaning that his Twitter feed is always open for suggestions and asking for recommendations, if need be.

“Part of the job is to be kind of an intellectual concierge,” says Seitz. “I’ll recommend books, sometimes it’s books I carry, and sometimes it’s books that are just available. I like to talk about books with people, and I’m trying to expand people’s horizons without being insufferable about it. Being able to make books fun, exciting and a lighthearted thing to discuss is a huge victory for me.”

By that measure, the MZS Worldstore is already a rousing success, pulling so many labors of love for their authors back into the conversation or introducing them into it with a guarantee that every title in stock has Seitz’s seal of approval. Well, with just one exception.

“My brand is I only stock books that I’m excited about for one reason or another. There’s no book in my store that I don’t like, except for ‘Atlas Shrugged.’ But that gets a pass, because Bert Cooper loved it.”

With that in mind, here are some books that you might want to pick up, whether to read on the beach or curl up indoors this summer:

“Movies Are Prayers”

Back in 2017, Josh Larsen, the longtime film critic behind Larsen on Film and the co-host of Filmspotting drew on his experience as both a cinefile and a Christian to consider the moments of transcendence that stories can provide in this illuminating book, envisioning the silver screen as a place of personal reflection and the fact that they work at all often a miracle. “Josh sent me the PDF [of the book], just to see if I had an opinion on it and I offered to write the introduction because it was the kind of book I’ve been waiting my entire life to read.” says  Seitz. “Basically, the thesis is that you can find God in movies that aren’t overtly religious films and you can look at a lot of supposedly secular films as being spiritual in nature. That’s something that I’ve been saying for years and I think it’s really important to have somebody who’s an actual practicing religious person say it.” (Check it out here)

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

One of the most hotly anticipated books of the summer will be in stock as of June 29th, with Quentin Tarantino’s first novel, filling out the world of his 2019 film with the kind of backstory he relished reading growing up with movie tie-in books. (Check it out here)

“Laura’s Ghost”

If the MZS Worldstore has a particularly robust section devoted to David Lynch, Seitz says a large degree of thanks can go to Fayetteville Mafia Press, one of the many small press publishers that have found a home on his storefront with The Blue Rose, a magazine dedicated to “Twin Peaks” ever since the show was revived in 2017, and “Conversations with Mark Frost,” a compendium of interviews with the show’s co-creator. However, one of the best-selling titles in the history of the store is this ingenious collection from Courtenay Stallings, gathering together the women invested in giving the murdered Laura Palmer such life within the show and beyond it from fans of the show to its cast and crew to talk about the enigmatic character’s evolution and legacy. (Check it out here)

“Auto Focus (aka The Murder of Bob Crane)”

After seeing some of the rare titles that the MZS Worldstore has in stock, it’s easy to imagine Seitz obsessively poring over online searches as if he were trying to find the Zodiac killer, so it’s only appropriate that there was much delight when he found his own unexpected connection to the case and gained a true crime section in the process. “They were a little pricey because it’s out of print, but I had to get ‘Auto Focus,’ which was adapted by Paul Schrader [for a film] and originally titled ‘The Murder Of Bob Crane,’ because I realized it’s written by Robert Graysmith, the main character of ‘Zodiac.’ He wrote it before he wrote ‘Zodiac,’ it’s like if you’re a Zodiac completist, you got to buy the Bob Crane book.” (Check it out here)

“The French Dispatch” and “A Lie Agreed Upon”

It should be mentioned that Seitz was too modest to plug any of his own books and you’ll have to wait until the fall for these two, but you should get in your preorders now for what he’s got in store for November with a new addition to his Wes Anderson Collection of books to accompany the Cannes-bound latest from the filmmaker “The French Dispatch,” and “A Lie Agreed Upon,” his comprehensive history and analysis of “Deadwood.” Besides being a great read, the book will surely look amazing on your shelf, the type of unique symbiosis of celebrating art and being art itself that Seitz hopes to stock more of, made to look like a Bible from yesteryear and like all offerings at MZS Worldstore, full of sacred words.

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