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"Hello, Bookstore": A Reader in Realm of Cinema
In this edition of Marginalia, a subtle and tender documentary about books and the people who love them.
Hello, Bookstore (2022)
How do you describe a film like Hello, Bookstore, expressing simultaneously its total absence of anything like plot and how utterly captivating it is? Asked by more than one person about this film I’d just seen and couldn’t stop talking about, I was forced to say, “It’s about a bookstore.” I tried sexing it up a little, adding that the documentary was filmed during the pandemic lockdowns that made running a small business all but impossible. No matter what I said, I received one of two responses: glassy-eyed incomprehension about how such a quiet film on such a modest topic could excite me, or the eager understanding of a kindred spirit who only has to hear the word “book” to light up.
In Hello, Bookstore, Matthew Tannenbaum — the highly literate yet down-to-earth owner of an independent bookstore in Massachusetts — tells a customer about the life of a bookseller: sitting around all day, reading and talking about the things that interest you most, interrupted only when people give you money. The film seems content to let that perception wash over its story, as we watch Tannenbaum do essentially that throughout. Director A. B. Zax (a wonderfully bibliophilic name with its evocation of the alphabet) takes a hands off approach in his film, which leaves the viewer feeling like you’ve wandered into the store for a casual browse — and somehow this makes for a truly compelling ninety minutes. I came out of the film reminded of how much I love not only books but cinema too.
If there’s one universally agreed-upon idea in literature it’s the notion that showing is better than telling. This precept leads us to the ironic truth that, although Hello, Bookstore is about a bookshop and its book-obsessed owner, it succeeds precisely because it’s a piece of cinema. That’s because the central charm that carries us through this wonderful documentary, which keeps us eager to see more in spite of a marked lack of narrative thrust, is how it conveys the nature of spending time in a secondhand bookstore. There is an experiential quality — “qualia”, to use the philosophical jargon — inherent to time spent in a room full of paper, words, and dust motes hanging in the sunlight that is inarticulable. Words can come close but cannot truly touch the experience. Film, on the other hand, can get you close enough to feel it for yourself.
Hello, Bookstore is the cinematic equivalent of browsing for books. The camera is always leisurely, never in a hurry to make a point or even tell you what you ought to be looking at (although, like a good bookseller, it does occasionally draw your attention to things that might interest you). The score is eclectic — some classical pieces here, a little jazz piano there — and scraps of conversation are frequently dropped in your lap like book recommendations, bits of an anecdote or the punchline of a joke cutting across meandering shots of bookshelves, “Vote Bernie” paraphernalia, and dusty furniture.
Speaking of that furniture: one of Tannenbaum’s grown-up daughters tells us that she’s long enjoyed slipping into the store “anonymously” and sitting in the big pink chair opposite the register to watch her dad interact with the customers. There’s a cut here to that chair with a young girl (presumably a customer who came in while they were filming) sitting there reading, then a cut to the chair on its own, its fabric weathered and stuffing falling out of a large tear. The editing tells us a story by implication here, suggestive of the daughter’s lifetime growing up in the store, the natural ageing of its furniture and its occupants.
The editing shoulders a lot of the work in Hello, Bookstore. It’s never showy or grasping for your attention, but without the editor’s eye for a crucial shot, a telling detail, a juxtaposition that reveals something or asks a question, the total lack of a narrative might have worn thin. The generosity of the direction and the editing together lets you feel as though you’re roaming freely, and frequently acts as our co-conspirator in eavesdropping on the conversations going on in the store.
My only issue with the film is a mere niggle, a question I can’t answer and would love to put to Zax: why are there black and white shots inserted seemingly at random into the film? The documentary opens with a prologue that foreshadows the pandemic to come, and this is shot in black and white, and it works here. But throughout Hello, Bookstore there are black and white shots that don’t seem to be foreshadowing anything, nor is there any apparent consistency in how the shots are utilised. There’s even a shot in colour, which we cut away from for a moment, and when we return to the same shot it is inexplicably in black and white. The truth is that trying to puzzle out a logic for this did pull me out of the film a few times.
However, that is the only affectation in a film that never resorts to sensationalising anything for the sake of conflict, including the pandemic. Even when the lockdowns mean that the bookshop faces real difficulty, when Tannenbaum shows us his finances scrawled on a yellow legal pad and says that he’s now making in a week what he used to make in a day, there’s very little sense of risk on a grand scale. This isn’t a film about the importance of the arts in society or the vital place of independent business in our economy. The stakes are no greater nor any smaller than they are for Tennenbaum himself; this is a human story first and foremost. There are no ticking clocks, none of the expected dramatic devices lesser films would employ to create stakes and tension. That’s because Hello, Bookstore is a film that doesn’t want to convince us of anything.
Hello, Bookstore is not after converts. It unfolds to reveal the overlapping lives that depend on this store (and those who simply enjoy it; the film makes clear that this simple pleasure is not to be sniffed at). It is enough for the film to lay out how many people value the bookstore. The viewer, in possession of a beating heart and a feeling soul, cares that these people might lose the place they love. If you need a reason to hope another bookstore isn’t forced to close, this film isn’t for you. If you need a reason, beyond the sheer pleasure of spending time in a bookstore with book-lovers, to watch a film like this (if, for instance, you’re after a plot or things happening), this film isn’t for you. If, on the other hand, you’re the sort of person who’d be excited by a reading list at the end of a movie (as this one has in its credits), then do say hello to this bookstore.
Marginalia, plur. noun:
“In getting my books, I have always been solicitous of an ample margin … for the facility it affords me of penciling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.”
~ Edgar Allan Poe