BookWars : A Provocative Look at NYC's Bookselling Street Vendors
by Dollie Banner
Rating: 3 stars
Many things can be bought on the sidewalks of New York City
beyond prostitutes and illegal drugs; hot dogs, wallets,
incense, cashew nuts and handbags are just a few of the
items available from the street vendors on almost any given
city block. Jason Rosette's new documentary BookWars
provides an inside look at a small niche of book vendors in
Manhattan's Greenwich Village and their struggle to keep
their livelihoods in the face of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's
efforts to "clean up the city."
Made under the guidance of fellow documentarian and
producer Michel Negroponte (Jupiter's Wife), Rosette, who
wrote, produced and edited BookWars, has made a remarkably
professional film for what is essentially a one-man
production. Rosette knows his material. A street bookseller
himself, Rosette made the film over a span of years while
working the sidewalks on a daily basis.
Using handheld video cameras, Rosette introduces the
audience to his cast of fellow street booksellers who
inhabit the sidewalks near New York University: Pete, a
successful bookseller spends his spare time making collages
and collecting toads; Thomas fervently cares for his books
and has the largest collection of all the booksellers; Rick
Sherman makes a living as a magician in the off season and
Polish Joe moves his stand around the Village to capitalize
on sales. They primarily sell used fiction and specialize
in rare philosophy and religious books while the mainly
African-American booksellers who shop their wares down the
street on 6th Avenue sell a collection of magazines,
pornography and popular fiction.
BookWars is true documentary in that Rosette simply
captures the daily lives of the booksellers asking few
questions and conducting no formal interviews. His
narration, culled from his own collection of short stories
and poems, is reminiscent of the Beat poets as Rosette
details the grind of making a living from street sales --
from exposure to the elements to obtaining the merchandise.
Their efforts are only compounded when Giuliani's mission
brings down the police and University officials to regulate
Unfolding the film at a deliberately slow pace, Rosette
establishes the atmosphere of the open market from the food
the vendors eat to the variety of customers that frequent
their stands, even following one historian customer home
where she presents her street purchases citing the name of
the merchant who sold it her. The most successful moments
depict the booksellers lives beyond the street as in one
extended sequence where he visits the New Jersey home of
Pete who supplements his living as a pet washer/groomer.
The personalities of the booksellers soon take a backseat
as Giuliani mission to clean up New York City threatens
their trade. Giuliani's crusade requires that each of the
merchants have sales tax identification and restricts the
areas of the sidewalk where they're allowed to set up,
forcibly limiting the number of stands on any given block.
The Sixth Avenue merchants fare far worse as the police
force them to pack up shop repeatedly. But BookWars only
touches upon the racial and political ramifications of
Giuliani's methods preferring to concentrate on how these
actions affect the booksellers.
Although Rosette's narrative would benefit from more
conventional footage of Giuliani's press conferences, city
committee meetings or interviews with those involved, he's
created a vivid portrait of a trade that lends Manhattan
some of its unique flavor. Ultimately BookWars is an
interesting profile of these small-scale entrepreneurs who
take their merchandise directly to the customer, but fails
to investigate the more provoking questions it raises.
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