Reviewed by Jessica Branch
Seriously, has anybody ever complained about the guys selling books around Washington Square Park? Most of us are only too glad not to have to drop $25 for a brand-new hardcover or a gently used classic. But is all that book business legal? Former street bookseller turned film director Jason Rosette set out to chronicle the community of bibliophiles who sell their wares on the streets of New York, and what happened to their way of life after Giuliani threw the book at them.
“Bookwars” is participatory documentary-filmmaking at its finest. Beautifully shot, the film combines a lyrical sense of the cityscape with an hysterical (but never patronizing) study of the booksellers and their devoted clientele. Rosette, whose deadpan Mickey Spillane narration gives the gently meandering movie both drive and drama, emphasizes the bookmen’s neighborly culture as he reveals esoteric secrets like the bookseller bars, the secret “sources” sellers cultivate to keep their supply fresh and, best of all, the myriad intricacies of pricing.
But the real revelations of the film lie in what happens to the booksellers after a fearsome threat to their First Amendment rights arises in the figure of, you guessed it, Giuliani. As the “Quality of Life” campaign cracks down on them, the community faces drastically reduced space and resources, police harassment and ever-changing regulations. Rosette has claimed that “the plight of the booksellers is a litmus test for the status of the public forum everywhere.” See the film for a peek into the depths of their precarious cultureÑand whether it will survive.