BookWars (Jason Rosette)

Briefly considered recusing myself from reviewing this documentary portrait of New York’s street booksellers, since approximately 10-15% of my personal library was purchased from its subjects, almost of all of whom I recognized and a couple of whom I’ve chatted with at some length. (Rosette concentrates on the tome-hawkers who ply their trade in front of NYU’s Bobst Library, which I visited several times a day for years and still walk past at least twice per week.)

Always kinda wondered about their lives, if only fleetingly: Are they homeless? desperate scavengers? antisocial bibliophiles? Turns out it varies from table to table, and while Rosette’s attempt to coax pathos and drama out of Giuliani’s quality-of-living campaign-cum-crackdown isn’t entirely successful — I’m fuzzy on why the First Amendment permits citizens to sell books on the street without a license or permit, whereas every other variety of vendor is subject to legal restrictions — the idiosyncratic personalities of the warriors themselves makes for compulsively watchable, uh, videomaking. (Actually, it looks comparatively decent, though it probably helped that I watched it on tape.)

These guys may look like counterculture casualties, with their glassy stares and scruffy beards, but most of them are surprisingly erudite, far more knowledgeable about their merchandise than the average Barnes & Noble staffer — and not that much pricklier, really, when you get right down to it. (Oddly, Rosette’s laconic narration never addresses the obvious racial divide: the guys on W. 4th St tend to be white and formally educated, whereas the Sixth Ave. sellers, who deal more in magazines than paperbacks, are primarily black and…let’s call them “less fortunate.”*)

A dude named Peter, in particular, evinces a tantalizing, unforgettable mix of literary savvy and ingenuous eccentricity; rummaging for new stock at a garage sale, waxing critical about various authors and genres, he suddenly spies a ceramic toad and places it carefully atop the several volumes cradled in his arms. “I collect toads,” he explains to the lens. And indeed he does, as a later visit to his apartment makes clear. Not all of them are ceramic. [TONY #246]

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