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"Books are heading the way of the opera."
DVD ReviewThey're a staple of Manhattan living for many of us: the jaded street bookseller, peddling his wares on the pavement, his table jammed with dog-eared copies of Nabokov, too many crappy romance novels, arcane and long out-of-print titles, and some stuff that looks as if it were just fished out of a dumpster. (It probably was.) If your house is anything like mine, books are piled on top of everything, and when I encounter one of these guys selling stuff, I know I shouldn't, but I take a few minutes to browse—there ends up being a whole lot more chaff than wheat, but every now and again you can find a gem. So just who are these guys, and what is this life they lead? This documentary, made by one of their own, introduces us to the ins and outs of this odd little bibliophilic subculture, in a charming, scrappy manner.
Jason Rosette was a college graduate in a situation that was hardly unique: bills to pay, no job, and lots and lots of books. So he did the obvious: he started selling the books, on the street, enticing the good citizens of lower Manhattan to cough up a few dollars for his used copies of Dostoyevsky, or Jane Austen, or whatever he could move. In so doing Rosette entered this tightly knit fraternity of street booksellers, and he profiles himself and his comrades here. There's a fundamental division, between the West 4th Street crowd, parked just in front of the NYU Library, and the 6th Avenue guys—most of the former are white, most of the latter are black, and there's just a slightly different character to their businesses. How they go about their trade and how they live their lives is Rosette's principal subject.
The title is actually something of a misnomer, in that there aren't any wars, no predatory Borders superstore moving into the 'hood and shutting down the local merchants. But that's fine, because what we get instead is a loving portrait of these guys—how they get their books (yard sales, estate sales, secret stashes, and connections), what sells and what doesn't (August Wilson: yes; Eugene O'Neill: no), and what they're up to when they're not on the corner. Outdoor bookselling in New York is a seasonal business, and so we see what they do in the winter months—one of them works as a pet shampooer, for instance, and onscreen we see a very, very unhappy, soaped-up cat. (Intrigo beware.) The film doesn't always do a great job at establishing each of the sellers as characters and helping us differentiate between them; instead, it's more of a group portrait, made with tremendous affection, though you may lose some of the threads, when you're hearing updates on who's doing what. More than once I found myself asking: which guy is that again?
And this is also Rosette's coming-of-age story, sort of his cinematic memoir of his days on West 4th Street. Things start well and take something of a downward turn—the unnamed, off-screen villain of the piece is the pre-9/11 Rudy Giuliani, who in the name of "quality of life improvements" had the NYPD roust out the booksellers, for no particular reason. Jason moves on, and tells us all about it—he narrates the film, and he's a warm and welcome presence, but on a couple of occasions you may wish that he'd show us more, instead of telling us himself. But still, this was obviously a low-budget affair, and BookWars is certainly a warm-hearted and fond look at one more of the things that makes New York unique and is disappearing.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: Just about the entire movie was shot on video, so the image quality is obviously limited; but the transfer is respectable enough, in that it doesn't seem to introduce any new marks or scratches to the already well-worn original.
Image Transfer Grade: B-
Audio Transfer Review: The soundtrack occasionally suffers from the same malady as much home-video footage: whoever is right next to the microphone is unbearably loud, and you can't make out much else. The narration only reinforces that somewhat, unfortunately.
Audio Transfer Grade: C
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 7 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Jason Rosette and Pete Whitney
Packaging: AGI Media Packaging
Extras Grade: C+
Final CommentsAn affectionate look at a disappearing breed, BookWars probably wouldn't be City Hall's advertisement for New York, but it's a candid and fond portrait of lower Manhattan's street booksellers.
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