Review of “Hello, Bookstore”: the independent bookstore as an oasis

There are times in non-fiction movies where the boldness – and the magic – happens in a surprisingly simple and quiet way. “Hello, Bookstore” is a documentary about a venerable and beloved independent bookstore in Lenox, Mass. The place is called The Bookstore, and it opened in 1973. Since 1976 it has been owned and operated by Matthew Tannenbaum, a great lover of stories, words and literature, caring, eccentric and engaging and talkative , who ritually answers the phone with a playful nerd “Hello, bookstore!” Handsome in the manner of an eagle, with an easy smile and a mop full of gray curls, Tannenbaum, in the mid-1970s, has the look and attitude of a debonair English teacher, but he is a mensch more modest than that – an unassuming bibliophile boomer, one who happily spends his days stocking shelves, poring over bills he should have scanned years ago, and chatting with his customers, which most often means trying to hook each of them up with the perfect book for them.

Independent bookstores are often places of attractive nooks and crannies, but The Bookstore is a grand affair of a rather simple room, laid out as an elegant upholstered rectangle, with a cream-coloured tin ceiling, hanging globe lamps, a pair of bronze ceiling fans, and each side of the room was lined with books, plus the occasional poster of someone like Kafka. In a secluded enclave, there’s even a wine bar named Get Lit (Tannenbaum: “Our motto is you can’t drink all day unless you start in the morning”). The place is organized in a sensible but just random enough way – a shelf marked “Travel & Adventure” is right next to one marked “Shakespeare”, with the word “Theatre” affixed almost as an afterthought – that we feel the human hand at work in each choice, each book exhibited. Every inch of the store is an act of curation.

“Hello, Bookstore” is about the effervescent buzz of The Bookstore, a cozy, communal place and rooted in Tannenbaum’s gregarious bond with the people of Lenox; the film also talks about the financial challenges the venue has had to endure, especially during the pandemic. You might assume that a documentary like this, by showcasing the inner vibe of a beloved independent bookstore, would use it to tell the larger story of independent bookstores in America: their beauty and value, their struggle in the age of corporatization. In a way, the movie taps into all of those things.

Yet “Hello, Bookstore,” directed, photographed, and co-edited by AB Zax, offers few rigorous details or sketches of the historical big picture. The film, which lasts 86 minutes, never leaves the store. He literally asks us to hang out there, with Tannenbaum and his books and his clients and his eccentric life of the mind. People go to independent bookstores to browse, and “Hello, Bookstore” is the documentary version of a great read. With delightful laid-back leisure and choice background music (classical guitar, jazz piano, Grieg piano suites), the film roams the shelves of the tale it tells, leafing through a page or two of the story, drawn to the cover drawing of a trivia here, a celebrity there, then wandering to the next shelf, rarely committing to a major purchase.

At the end, however, you can feel something richly moving and almost transcendental. “Hello, Bookstore” joins a small but growing group of documentaries, like “Carmine Street Guitars” and “California Typewriter,” that are steeped in the fading mystique of analog culture and the extraordinary love that so many still feel for her. You could call these films nostalgic, and they certainly are, but there’s more to their nostalgia than saying, “Wasn’t that a good thing?” “Hello, Bookstore” is a tribute to the sacramental qualities of art that are embedded in daily life.

“Everyday is like Christmas,” Tannenbaum observes wryly, taking the day’s book deliveries out of the box, and we can see how true this is, for to him books are magical objects; They are gifts. Throughout the film, he reads passages from some of his favorite authors, including philosophical children’s books like “Higgledy Piggledy Pop!” by Maurice Sendak! The fact that we probably don’t know what he’s reading — it could be Robert Frost, Willa Cather, Philip Roth, Edna St. Vincent Millay, or Gustav Flaubert — is kind of the point. Amusingly, he makes them all sound like philosophical children’s books, teasing the stark discovery at the heart of so much poetry and literary fiction. We see how great writing, like the bookstore itself, weaves ties in the universe of imaginative delight.

Tannenbaum’s own life plays out like a different story, whether he tells us “I’m on hold on credit with Simon & Schuster, because I owe them too much money,” or mentions how his wife is. died after 11 years, leaving him to raise his two daughters, Shawnee and Sophie, aged 7 and 3 (we meet them as adults, just as Shawnee is pregnant with her first grandchild), or describing how he was in the Navy when another sailor turned him on to Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Jack Kerouac, and Henry Miller led him to Anaïs Nin, and Anaïs Nin led him to Gotham Book Mart, the legendary bookstore and lounge literary store in downtown Manhattan which was, at the time, the only store in America. who sold his books, which is why he got a job there and found his mission, or recalling how a young musician named Patti Smith used to walk into the store and tell him about Rimbaud.

Part of the movie was shot during the pandemic, and there are times where Tannenbaum is pretty strict about no one entering the store, even though it’s still technically open; it essentially offers the bookstore equivalent of take-out food. Meanwhile, he sells about as many books in a week as he sold in a day, putting the business in jeopardy. Can he survive?

The film captures this entrepreneurial trauma by downplaying it, keeping it almost in the background until it looks up. Tannenbaum decides to launch a GoFundMe campaign, and backed by local media coverage, he raises all the money he needs to stay open in just 11 p.m.; in no time, he raised another $60,000. It’s a happy ending that inspires Tannenbaum to jokingly compare himself to George Bailey, the hero of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But the comparison is very relevant. George Bailey was saved by his family community because they all had such loyalty to him, all because he had such loyalty to them. Something similar happens in “Hello, Bookstore,” which is really a movie about how a deceptively quiet bookstore, when put together with genuine love by someone like Matthew Tannenbaum, connects people together. to each other connecting them all to the great story that life is.

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