Director – A.B. Zax – 2022 – US – Cert. PG – 86m
A small town US bookstore and its enthusiastic, bookworm owner are seen in good times and bad, bad being the global pandemic when it’s just getting by, profits plunge and the business is threatened with closure – out in UK cinemas and on demand on Friday, June 30th
Shot in a mixture of colour and black and white, this documentary about a bookstore (or bookshop, as we call them in the UK) in Lenox, Massachusetts – called, quite literally, The Bookstore – and its owner of 40 years Matt Tannenbaum opens with a short sequence in black and white showing the premises under pandemic lockdown, making this film an addition to that small but welcome group of movies that don’t pretend the pandemic never happened.
The genial Tannenbaum has to explain to callers that he’s not letting anyone in, “not for browsing, just for kerbside” and has lengthy conversations on the phone. He admits a masked delivery man with the latest shipment of books, but that’s all. “It’s so hard, it’s so boring, it’s so different,” he says. Clearly he prefers non-pandemic times, when people come into the store, and he can talk to them, find out what they like, and supply books suitable for their tastes. He answers another phone call: “Hello, Bookstore.”
It then moves on to colour footage, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that colour would be non-pandemic times and back and white pandemic, but what follows chops and changes between the two formats without any discernible rationale beyond editing and aesthetic (I can’t rationally explain to you why some is black and white and some colour, but the mixture overall seems to break up the whole nicely).
The static camera angles are constantly inventive, helping to maintain interest in a shop interior which could, lensed by other eyes, rapidly become boring. We get a feel for the physical geography of the place, including the basement where book inventory is piled higgledy-piggledy on shelves and tables, much of it waiting to be sorted.
Insofar as the film has a discernible narrative structure or plot, it introduces us to the premises and the owner – who is very much the protagonist of the piece, while other characters come and go – and towards the end has him talking about the accounts, which basically boil down to, in the pandemic his takings in a week what they would under normal conditions be in a day, and he is likely to go under.
So with the help of friends he puts up a GoFundMe appeal in the hope of saving both the bookshop and his livelihood and lifestyle, the latter aptly summed up by someone else as, Matt sits at his desk by the door all day talking about what he loves, occasionally pausing so people can give him money. He relates how he asked his accountant what the business would be worth if he wanted to sell it, and the answer came back, “nothing”. But then, as he points out, this is from someone who doesn’t understand the (non-monetary) value of books.
The film’s real asset – which ultimately makes the film work (and why it’s worth seeing) – is Matt himself. An avid reader, who as it turns out is highly skilled at reading prose out loud for others, he is seen reading aloud to camera and / or microphone extracts from numerous books, in a mixture of enjoying the ebb, flow and deployment of words and verbal language for their own sake and becoming entranced by the worlds they conjure.
On occasion, we see him recite words from a favourite book, and his ability to memorise is remarkable. In another life, he could perhaps have had a career as a person who reads out loud to others, or possibly even a narration voice over artist for radio, TV and movies.
Equally importantly, Matt is a people person, someone who enjoys interacting with all the people who visit his shop to wander, browse and chat in the hope that he can find a book or books that will suit them down to the ground. Which is clearly part of why he found the pandemic experience difficult.
Although he and his shop are the subject, there’s very much a sense in which, actually, the film is about the wider community of all those who pass through his store who (a very American concept, this) he is able to serve and who, when he sets up his appeal, don’t want to lose a local institution and so rally round. Equally, the film is about family – Matt lost his wife after eleven years of marriage and had to raise two daughters (3 and 7) by himself, one of whom is now a mum and visits with Matt’s new grandchild in tow, leaving him to be childminder in the shop for an afternoon. “You can buy anything in the store except the baby”, he tells bemused visitors at the door.
In the end, the film itself is a lot like a treasured bookstore within the walls and shelves of which you can spend time and happily get lost, or experiencing the hospitality of an old friend or a favourite uncle who is always a pleasure to visit and has great stories to tell.
The opening acknowledges the pandemic to suggest the film will cover mostly happier, more ordinary times, but in the event, the pandemic period takes centre stage here in a film that’s at once a compelling portrait of a real life character and a fascinating study of their business – one motivated commendably by a love of its stock-in-trade rather than primarily to turn a profit – and the survival or otherwise of both during a time of crisis. Highly recommended viewing.
A final note: it’s quite likely during the course of this film that you’ll spot a book cover or hear an extract and want to know more, so you might want to take a pencil and pad into the cinema just in case. When the film appears on physical home cinema disc media, as hopefully it will in due course, the freeze frame will prove invaluable at such moments.
It’s also a film that offers great possibilities for Blu-ray or DVD production in terms of being able to click and find out more about the books from which samples are being read. It’s little independent feature, so the chances of any such special approach being taken are small; one can, however, but hope.
Hello, Bookstore is out in cinemas and on demand in the UK on Friday, June 30th.