The subculture of street booksellers described by Rosette may not be as misrepresented by the media as sadomasochists, but they’ve become more and more marginalized over the course of Manhattan’s gentrification. His look at their world dispels quite a few received notions: very few vendors are homeless, and most acquire their books from private collections and small-town thrift stores and library sales, rather than theft. Rosette himself fell into the “career” by accident. 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. He wound up selling books – on the stretch of Manhattan’s West 4th Street in front of the NYU library, ironically – for three years and documented much of his experience, including interactions with customers and other booksellers, on video.
Although marred by Rosette’s glib voice-over, BOOKWARS does a fine job of exploring various aspects of his trade, as well as the hardcore bibliophiles attracted to it. While a few of them have the kind of troubled background one might expect – several are recovering alcoholics or drug addicts – most are bohemians who simply prefer it to the 9-to-5 office grind. Thanks to Rosette’s loose, digressive structure, BOOKWARS often seems to have edited rather aimlessly, but it builds towards a climax – courtesy Giuliani’s “quality of life” campaign – based around the growing harassment of street vendors, despite their First Amendment right to sell books on the street without a license, and his subsequent burn-out. (Oddly, he never discusses the racial disparity between the mostly white vendors on 4th Street, who sellÊ literature and philosophy, and the African-American ones on 6th Ave., who usually sell old comic books and magazines, especially porn, although he does show that the latter are more often harassed by the police.)
Rosette may be painting an overly rosy view of the bibliophile subculture, but he gives us a fascinating look into a world most New Yorkers have had a brush with – I’ve bought plenty of books from the West 4th Street crew – but know little about.