HamptonsFilm’s Now Showing will continue on Saturday, February 22 with a screening of D.W. Young’s The Booksellers, which takes a look at the fascinating rare book world.
We recently caught up with the documentary’s director and co-producer to learn more about the captivating antiquarian booksellers featured, the rarest works he came across, and more.
Are you a collector?
DWY: No, not at all. I have a fair number of books but they’re not valuable, just for reading. I don’t have that particular urge.
So, why shine a spotlight on those behind the world of rare bookselling?
DWY: The idea originated with one of our producers Dan Wechsler, who along with working in film is actually a fairly prominent rare book dealer in New York. He knew the world already coming into this. A number of years ago, he mentioned to me and Judith Mizrachy, the other producer, that this would be a good idea for a documentary because no one’s ever done it. We immediately agreed and thought it was a great idea. But, we didn’t really act on the idea for various reasons at the time, that was about seven years ago, and then we got involved with another project. About three years ago, it occurred to me that this might be the perfect time to pursue the rare book idea. And also, there was some incentive that a lot of people, the older generation, were really getting to a point that we might miss people if we waited too long. Also, I have an aunt and uncle that worked in the rare book business. So, I had some personal childhood experience in all of this as well – to sort of be inspired by.
Do people typically have a specialty, or how do they know how to determine the pricing?
DWY: That’s an interesting question. There are people who are specialists and generalists in the rare book world. In the past, I think there was a lot of specialization. My understanding is generalists have sort of become a little more common nowadays. But, determining the price is an art and there’s no set rules for it. I think what happened with the Internet was determining the price for certain kinds of books became straightforward because you just compared it to the price online, that everyone else was selling by. It was just a race to the bottom; kind of a who’s willing to go the lowest. But, on the more interesting, unique items, it’s a little bit of what you would imagine someone would be willing to pay for it, or that you believe you could find someone willing to pay for it.
What was the rarest book you came across?
DWY: Certainly the handwritten, original Borges manuscripts were pretty phenomenal. I don’t know if it was technically the rarest item, but it was certainly one of the most impressive. We saw a map that was worth about $400,000. Certainly many of the items in Jay Walker’s library in the movie are pretty outrageous. Jewel bindings and some very important books are there. He has not the original Declaration of Independence, we didn’t see it but I knew it was there, but it’s the next copy of it, which is actually better quality than the original Declaration of Independence. Those are extremely rare and valuable. I think he has maybe one of the only ones not in institutional hands. The Great Gatsby first edition is a pretty big deal.
It seems as though there’s a bit of a resurgence of the independent book stores. What would you attribute that to?
DWY: It’s not so much rare books, as kind of smaller stores that are, I think, more curated and more focused on a very particular kind of set of material and in smaller spaces. I think it’s a little bit of a response to the realities of real estate and space. But, also the idea that people are trying to engage people on a human level, and I think that’s kind of been a lot of the incentive. The idea that there is a way to still access certain kinds of books. It’s not completely digital and online. I think there has been a renewed kind of appreciation of that. I think, also, with younger people it’s changed a little from the traditional huge bookstore that had a little bit of everything, a bigger space where you can just kind of wander around – that’s not so much resurging. But there definitely is a resurgence. And I think that’s an interesting aspect of kind of generational change.
Obviously technology has had a great impact on the industry. What do you see for the future of the book world?
DWY: The initial impact was that it put a lot of people out of business, who really relied upon selling a certain range of lower priced, not super rare, but somewhat rare and collectible books as their stock and trade. That became very hard to do for a lot of dealers. Certainly, if they did not learn to do it on the Internet well, it was particularly problematic. But, I think, going forward it’s how much will the business compress? Because I think the concern is not people are going to stop collecting books entirely. It’s will the Internet allow for a growth in the industry or will it be a slower compression of a business, and there’s a lot of different opinions amongst dealers and people involved. There’s no clear cut answer there.
Is there anything you hope people take away from this film?
DWY: Well, I think as far as the rare books go, we very much wanted to convey an appreciation of the value of the people involved in this world, of what these people bring to history, scholarship, beyond just the commercial side of what they do. I think collectors and book dealers are an important part of the recording of history, understanding history, and preservation, by the nature of what they do. They’re very smart people, some of whom have very interesting and unique perspectives on the material outside of academia. So, there’s great value there. And then also, it is important, we feel, the value of the printed word, printed objects, material, culture. There’s more to this than people realize.
What are you working on next?
DWY: I have a narrative project I’ve been hoping to get off the ground for a while. We’re going to see what we can do with that. And a couple little short small things that I’m toying around with and then another longer-term documentary project that’s ongoing.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
DWY: There’s a fairly significant interest in rare books in the Hamptons.
Tickets to The Booksellers are $15 ($13 Members). The screening commences at 6 p.m.
Guild Hall is located at 158 Main Street in East Hampton. For more information, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.