Dir. Jason Rosette 2000 N/R
79 mins. Documentary
You’ve seen them plying their trade in front of NYU’s Bobst Library, at the foot of Washington Square Park. You’ve spent an idle five minutes in front of their rickety tables on lower Sixth Avenue, rifling through stacks of ancient Sports Illustrateds and Marie Claires. Perhaps you’ve wondered, however fleetingly, about their lives: Are they homeless? Desperate scavengers? Antisocial biblophiles? Manhattan’s street booksellers are a peculiar lot, and Jason Rosette–who, until quite recently, was hawking tomes right alongside them–has assembled a fascinating, often hilarious portrait of their stubbornly independent lifestyle, as well as their struggle to remain in business in the face of Mayor Giuliani’s quality-of-living crackdown.
The political angle, needless to say, inspired the film’s provocative title, and scenes of New York’s finest descending upon these innofensive guys and impounding their merchandise provide the film with a modicum of tension and drama. But what lingers in the memory, ultimately, are the idiosyncratic personalities of the booksellers themselves. While many of them look at first glance like counterculture casualties, they’re surprisingly erudite, far more knowledgeable about their merchandise than the everage Barnes & Noble staffer (and not that much pricklier, really, when you get down to it). A dude named Peter, in particular, evinces a tantalizing, unforgettable mix of lieterary saavy 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 cradles 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.
Oddly, Rosette’s laconic narration never addresses the obvious racial divide: the guys on West 4th Street tend to be white and formally educated, whereas the Sixth Avenue sellers, which deal more in magazines than paperbacks, are primarily black and …let’s call them “less fortunate”. Omissions of this sort make BookWars less sociologically incicive than it might have been, but it’s compulsively watchable all the same. These book warriors are beholden to nobody; you may not exactly envy their variety of freedom, but it’s difficult not to respect it.