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 their business.
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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