BookWars (review)

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Sidewalk book vendors are a familiar sight to anyone who has walked the streets of Manhattan below 14th Street, and yet they have an air of mystery about them. Sure, I’ve been lured by the siren call of cheap books — most New Yorkers are — but I’d always been a bit suspicious of the booksellers. Were they homeless guys scraping by selling stolen books? What was their story? Jason Rosette sold books for three years to pay his way through school, and he offers us an insider’s look at this world in BookWars. Shot on various video and small film formats, this slice of NYC street life has the kind of gritty intimacy only possible when tiny, unobtrusive cameras catch ordinary people with their guard down. Rosette’s husky voiceover lends a sneakily funny neo-noir attitude to the outlaw mentality of the oddball characters manning the just-this-side-of-legal book tables: Vendors range from former homeless to former stockbroker, immigrants from everywhere from Russia to New Jersey; one won’t sell to customers he doesn’t like, another wears shorts and sandals in all weather. All are “book maniacs” who don’t want to live inside the workaday system. And Rosette captures perfectly the love affair bibliophiles on both sides of the table carry on with their books, romancing the souls of used tomes, with their battered, careworn pages. And in a reader’s city like New York, even the cops who have to enforce mayor Rudy Guiliani’s crackdown on the vendors can’t help but browse the books while the sellers fold shop under their watchful eyes. This is a passionate, affectionate paean to free speech, free commerce, and the glory of cheap books.

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