by Steve Erickson
A new documentary chronicles the underground life of New York’s street book vendors
The book sale taking place onscreen is the very opposite of that offered by Amazon.com–an orderly and antiseptic transaction that promises you the exact title you seek without so much as having to make eye contact, not to mention touch dirty change from a till. On the sidewalk across the street from Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park, a group of men are trying to eke out a living hawking used books. The footage of them plying their wares hardly makes it seem like the path to riches; some of the older men look as ragged as the paperbacks on their tables. Unlike most of the minimum-wage clerks at Barnes & Noble, these vendors get really passionate about their product: One continually sabotages himself by screaming at customers who grab books too eagerly or want to negotiate the price.
As a onetime working member of this street culture, Jason Rosette would seem to be uniquely aware of just how unglamorous the trade can be. That understanding didn’t stop Rosette from making his documentary BookWars, a pavement-level view of an underground economy. Yet chosen topic didn’t exactly attract industry support. The fact is, sensationalism and fame sell, even in the relatively noncommercial world of the documentary. In recent years, the effort to attract an audience for nonfiction film has led doc makers to flirt with some of the subjects favored by their commercial cousins: sex (American Pimp, The Lifestyle: Group Sex in the Suburbs); porn-star profiles (The Girl Next Door, Sex: The Annabel Chong Story); drugs (Grass); celebrities (Wild Man Blues, The Eyes Of Tammy Faye); and/or music (Buena Vista Social Club, The Filth and the Fury, Better Living Through Circuitry). Alas, BookWars has no sex appeal whatsoever, although one can imagine a Hollywood remake in which Angelina Jolie supports herself through college by selling discarded porn. All this is to say that Rosette, who is the film’s subject/director/writer/editor has taken considerable risks in tackling a marginal topic, street bookselling, in a widely ignored medium.
Rosette can hardly be accused of having entered the trade while secretly scripting his Sundance acceptance speech. Rather, after graduation from NYU, he wound up unemployed, living with a junkie roommate and one valuable asset: a huge book collection that could readily be turned into cash. On an impulse, he decided to sell his books–on the stretch of Manhattan’s West Fourth Street in front of the NYU library–and made enough money that he decided to pursue this “career” for three years.
Soon, Rosette began turning a video camera on his customers and fellow vendors. To the extent that he most often served as his own cameraman, Rosette is rarely onscreen, instead expressing his recollections through a voice-over. But this does not change the subjective nature of this bookseller’s insights. Filmmakers as different as Nick Broomfield, Elia Suleiman, Ross McElwee and Nanni Moretti have challenged the authoritarian “objectivity” implicit in the concept of cinema verité with adamantly first-person films, often mingling fiction and documentary and portraying themselves as characters to do justice to their experiences. BookWars transcends navel-gazing by virtue of tackling one of the documentary field’s most valuable tasks: speaking about a subculture from the inside.
The vendors described by Rosette have been ignored by the media and driven into the shadows through the police harassment that has been concomitant with Manhattan’s gentrification. That makes meeting Rosette’s colleagues, as we do in the film’s first ten minutes, an inherently interesting prospect. Among the most colorful characters are Rick, a Timothy Leary/Robert Anton Wilson devotee and Kevin Corrigan look-alike whose main hobby is magic tricks, and Boris, a Russian who mysteriously disappears while Rosette is shooting the film. While a few of the hardcore bibliophiles have a troubled background–Al, a recovering addict who sports a mesh fedora, gives an impassioned description of the spiritual epiphany that led him to swear off substance abuse–most are bohemians who simply prefer this life to the nine-to-five office grind. In addition to documenting their interactions with customers and one another, Rosette also takes us along with some of the vendors as they prowl the suburbs for hidden treasures. As it turns out, very few are homeless, and most acquire their books from private collections and small-town thrift stores and library sales rather than theft. Although marred by Rosette’s glib voiceover– describing his initial desperation, he remarks, “I ended up broke in the big city; it’s not a good feeling”–BookWars at its best manages to capture the texture and nuance of keen sociology.
At the same time, the film seems to have been edited rather aimlessly, which leads to a loose, digressive structure. After an hour of lollygagging, however, it gradually builds toward a climax courtesy of Mayor Giuliani’s “quality of life” campaign. This policy targeted street merchants, trampling over what Rosette describes as a First Amendment right to sell books on the street without a license. Yet there’s not a union steward to protect these vendors: Although Rosette makes optimistic claims about this community’s unity, the evidence his camera finds is quite different. Segregation persists even in this tiny demimonde. The mostly white vendors on Fourth Street sell literature and philosophy, while the black ones on Sixth Avenue usually sell old comic books and magazines, especially porn. Rosette never comments on this disparity, although he does show that the latter group suffers far more abuse at the hands of the police.
Near the end of BookWars, the filmmaker confesses to have burned out a bit on his accidental vocation. And quitting is no dereliction of duty: Having humanized a widespread–yet deeply obscure–aspect of New York’s street culture, he has already completed a valuable task. And it almost goes without saying that you don’t need to provide two weeks’ notice to stop street selling; you just pick up your blanket and walk away.