No-frills, behind-the-scenes look at New York City street book vendors is informative, amusing and political.
AVATAR FILMS/Color/1.33/79 Mins. Featuring: Jason Rosette, Peter Whitney, Rick Sherman, Marvin, Everett Shapiro, Polish Joe, Al Mappo, Margueritte, Ron Harris. Credits: Produced, directed, photographed and edited by Jason Rosette. Co-producers: Michel Negroponte, James and John Montoya. Associate producer: Alan Fulford. Music by Rich Goldstein and Little Muddy.
BookWars, a low-budget documentary about downtown Manhattan used-book sellers, sheds some light on a demimonde of sorts at the edges of Greenwich Village, while striking a blow for free speech.
Filmmaker Jason Rosette appears to have first-hand knowledge about this subject, having served in the sidewalk book trenches to pay off his college tuition. In BookWars, we see him mingling with a diverse band of literary eccentrics-on either side of the book tables-and interacting daily with book junkies, crazies and cops.
BookWars unfolds against a seemingly amiable setting, that of a lively, open-air bazaar where book covers, words and pictures are the currency and perhaps the drug. It’s a setting that seems to captivate passersby from morning to night.
Rosette, something of a low-key book maven compared to his associates, admits to being lured into the world of book dealing almost without a second thought. As a guide of sorts to BookWars’ audience, he’s both candid and unassuming.
The filmmaker dispels some of the myths that accrue to the used-book street scene, mainly the notion that most of the vendors are drug dealers and thieves. Rosette’s pals in the book trade include Pete, a collage artist and toad-fancier, and Al, the oldest vendor on the street, who specializes in maps.
Without casting his fellow entrepreneurs in an overly innocent light, Rosette’s film makes a case for the book vendors as decent guys-hardly flawless, but hard-working. Everett is an outdoorsman. Rick is a magician who admires Timothy Leary. The book vendors’ interests seem no stranger than those of any other microcosm. “I’ll sell anything,” one of them confesses, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull or Adolf Hitler.”
In spite of their quirks and idiosyncrasies, the vendors in BookWars find a common goal when the New York Police Department, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and nearby New York University join forces for a “quality-of-life clean-up campaign” aimed at harassing the booksellers with nickel-and-dime infractions. Ultimately, the First Amendment prevails.
For a guy who cheerfully acknowledges that he once thought George Eliot was a man, Rosette has fashioned a book-friendly, appealing non-fiction film that is lively and political. There is wry humor in BookWars, too, the kind that surfaces when people are working in a public space. New Jersey is routinely dismissed as “the land of the ten-cent book,” and a sobering notion surfaces that “when you die, these guys [Rosette’s co-workers] will get your books.” In a more melancholy vein, a bookseller observes that the items most likely to be found between the pages of a used volume are love letters and train tickets.