Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 148
The Folger Shakespeare Library started with Henry and Emily Folger, two collectors who loved books and Shakespeare and had the means to pursue what they loved. They were supported by booksellers, who make their livelihoods poring through collections of books and ephemera and bringing those items to the people who want them.
The Booksellers, a new documentary directed by D.W. Young, explores the New York rare book world in all its depth, breadth, history, and quirkiness. In it, you’ll meet Syreeta Gates, who is preserving the artifacts of ‘80s and ‘90s hip-hop; Caroline Schimmel, a pioneering collecting of women’s writing; Jay Walker, the collector behind the Museum of the History of Human Imagination; Michael Zinman, who sought out “damaged” books at a time before other booksellers understood their real value; and many other passionate booklovers.
We talked to D.W. Young about the magic of old books, myths about booksellers, and what the future of the rare book community might hold. Young is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
MICHAEL WITMORE: Where do libraries come from? We have an answer. And it may surprise you.
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. Of course, libraries come from a lot of places. But some—like the one that produces this podcast—begin in a very specific place. In fact, you might say in cases like ours: A library begins in the heart of one or maybe two people. For us, it was Henry and Emily Folger, who loved Shakespeare, loved old books, and had the means to pursue what they loved. And Mr. and Mrs. Folger are not alone. There are plenty of avid book buyers out there, each with his or her own individual passion.
Catering to the passions of those book buyers is a legion of book sellers who make their livelihoods poring through collections of books and ephemera and bringing those items to the people who want it.
A new documentary is out—executive produced by Parker Posey—that celebrates this world. It's called The Booksellers and it’s directed by filmmaker D. W. Young. The film takes a microscopic look at the New York book-buying world in all its depth, breadth, history, and quirkiness. We got D. W. Young in front of a microphone recently to tell us more in a podcast episode that we call “I Loved My Books.” D. W. Young is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: Because of COVID, I’ve been digging deep into my Netflix backlist of TV shows, and I’ve dipped into this TV series—I don’t know if you know it—called You. It’s a thriller that stars Penn Badgley as the owner of a bookstore. He is… of course he’s Penn Badgley, so he’s young and he’s hot, but he’s incredibly well-read. And, he’s a sociopath. Have you seen it, by the way?
D.W. YOUNG: I have not. I vaguely have heard about it.
BOGAEV: Well, I thought of you because, you know, I’m watching this, thinking, “Oh, what bookseller has ever looked like Penn Badgley?”
BOGAEV: I mean, no offense to your subjects, but Hollywood and the movies—in general—it seems like they just love to depict sexy booksellers. And you have a clip like that, in your film. It’s from The Big Sleep where an erudite and erotic book clerk is talking with Humphrey Bogart.
[CLIP from The Big Sleep, directed by Howard Hawks. Humphrey Bogart is Philip Marlowe.]
Would you have a Ben Hur,1860, Third Edition, with a duplicated line on page 116?
BOGAEV: What is that about?
YOUNG: Well, you know, I think there’s, like, two images, maybe. We showed a clip from the movie Unfaithful.
[CLIP from Unfaithful, directed by Adrian Lyne. Olivier Martinez is Paul Martel and Diane Lane is Connie Sumner.]
Pardon the mess.
You a writer?
I’m a bookdealer.
YOUNG: And there’s a ridiculously attractive French bookseller.
BOGAEV: The French guy.
YOUNG: Who’s her…
BOGAEV: Oh my. OMG. Yes.
YOUNG: Yeah, and he’s kind of off the charts. I think there’s also this stuffier, traditional English model, perhaps, with the tweed jacket and the patched elbows.
BOGAEV: Yeah. But that’s idealized, too. I mean, I think it’s just interesting. It’s so romanticized, this idea. Is that what attracted you to this subject?
YOUNG: I don’t think that was the primary motivation, but I think we certainly wanted to set it straight, maybe. Give people their due, and represent that they’re more than just the stereotype, certainly.
[CLIP from The Booksellers, directed by D.W. Young.]
What rare bookdealers do, is inculcate neophytes into the wonder of the object of the book. So, the rare bookdealers are transmitting the ability to learn how to appreciate the books.
BOGAEV: A lot of the people in your movie get into the bookstore trade because they are born into it. It seems like there are many roads to this path. But, two of them are: either they make a really remarkable, dramatic find and they build from that, or they’re born into it.
YOUNG: I don’t know that I’d say that that many in the US are born into it. A few, but I think in England that seems to be more common. But, you know, a lot of the dealers in the end have come to their role in the rare book trade, it seems like, through their own unique path.
I think that’s kind of what’s interesting, is that there is no formal education for becoming a rare book dealer, right? Or even a book dealer, for that matter. There’s no university degree you can get. There may be some apprenticeship models, but I don’t even know that these days they’re as clear cut as maybe they once were. So I think it’s something that people sort of have to find their way to. Which I like very much.
[CLIP from The Booksellers, directed by D.W. Young. Bibi Mohamed is the speaker.]
BIBI MOHAMED: I was just starting out, you know, in my parent’s home working in the basement.
BOGAEV: There are some really dramatic finds. It seems like every career has at least one.
I remember I went to an estate in Greenwich, Connecticut, and I was number one on line. And I walked into the room, and there on the shelf; a beautiful set of Balzac works—like forty volumes. And it was like, maybe, two hundred dollars for the set. And I ran up, I said, “These are mine! These are mine! Nobody touch. These are mine!” It was a fine… I never forgot that. Never. That’s how it all started, funny enough.
YOUNG: Yes. That’s Bibi Mohamed, and that was, I think, like a real defining moment where it kind of launched her career in a fundamental way. I talked to various other dealers. All, in their way, often had these moments where everything changed for them. It elevated them to another level.
BOGAEV: Well, indulge me, just for a moment please, in the romantic side of the business. Or maybe just let’s do some myth-busting. Maybe I’m all wrong about this, because I collect medical history. And I love holding the books, and seeing the illustrations. But I love the hunt.
So, is that what a lot of the booksellers that you talked to for the film—is that what attracted them? And do they have these fabulous stories of hunting down these books that involve actual travel? Or is it—at this point—is it really about, you know, looking it up on the Internet?
[CLIP from The Booksellers, directed by D.W. Young.]
Collecting is about the hunt. It’s not about the object. You look for twenty years and then you find it, and you put it on the shelf and you never look at it again.
YOUNG: I think it really, in many ways, marks the generational divide, in a sense of why I think the Internet marks the end of an era. That physical act of traveling, of hunting, of digging, has been greatly reduced because of the Internet. For a lot of people who really made those kinds of finds, established their businesses very much that way, you know, there’s a sadness to that. There’s a loss.
[CLIP from The Booksellers, directed by D.W. Young. A series of interview clips:]
The business tragically changed with the rise of the computer. All of a sudden, all those $50, $77, $100, $125 books become $20 or $25 or $30 books, and there were a lot of copies of those books.
Basically, in the last ten years, every piece of [expletive] that’s been laying around somewhere is suddenly out on the internet. So there’s been this incredibly upwelling of stuff; be it books or beanie babies or whatever it is.
It’s become ruined by the internet. It’s great for collectors that the internet exists. They find books that they spent decades trying to find unsuccessfully in the past at the touch of a key. But to be a surviving used bookseller—is mostly what I’m talking about—is almost impossible.
YOUNG: It is a little less romantic than going cross-country in your car, and stopping at every little country auction, or whatever, and stumbling across great things. Or digging through boxes of books and making a great find.
BOGAEV: Well, the Folger was made possible by two ardent book buyers. Passionate book buyers, like the people you feature in the film. And you do delve into this idea of the benefit to society that book buying can have. Why don’t you give us some examples of this; of one person’s passion translating into a larger win for the public.
YOUNG: So, I think in terms of… from my understanding, the best material, the important stuff—at the end of the day, most people in this world feel like it should end up, eventually, in an institution, where it’s accessible to the public and academics, and people to study.
In terms of what constitutes a great find, in many cases now, I think it’s about realizing something has an interest or a value that was previously unrecognized or underappreciated. So, there’s a lot going on with re-evaluation of the relevance of various historical material from different kind of writers. Maybe writers who’ve been undervalued or underrepresented. I think, you know, a great example in the film would be Caroline Schimmel’s collection.
[CLIP from The Booksellers, directed by D.W. Young. The speaker is Caroline Schimmel.]
CAROLINE SCHIMMEL: I noticed that there were no women. It was as though the history of women didn’t happen. That they were, just sort of, there on the side, knitting or something like that.
YOUNG: Which is one of the foremost collections of writing by women about women pioneering and exploring America.
CAROLINE SCHIMMEL: It was just a great chasm. I thought it was just a little narrow gully, but it was a chasm into which I jumped and started collecting. You know, I had to educate the dealers. I had to educate the librarians to what I was looking for. And most of the dealers were men, and I would say, “Show me where your women are,” and they’d go, “We don’t have any.” And I would come back with a stack and they’d go, “Ah! Okay. So now we know.”
YOUNG: And she’d, by providing greater context, elevated that understanding.
CAROLINE SCHIMMEL: It’s almost twenty-five thousand items, but that also includes art, photography, all sorts of tchotchkes. I mean, if you’re going to have a collection and you intend to exhibit it, having a whole bunch of books open at the title page is really boring. So you need things like Annie Oakley’s gloves.
ANOTHER SPEAKER: Caroline has got an eye for the quirky, but also for the historically important. And she’s built up a fantastic network of people who can help her realize what will be her defining role in life, which will be to have the greatest collection of American women writers and history makers that there is.
SCHIMMEL: I feel I have a responsibility to form this collection.
YOUNG: If you look at, in the same way, in a very modern sense Syreeta Gates, who’s interested in archiving and preserving a lot of writing about hip-hop from the ‘80s and ‘90s.
[CLIP from The Booksellers, directed by D.W. Young. The speaker is Syreeta Gates.]
Hip-hop, people didn’t think it was going to last, let alone us being 40 years in, 45 years in. Like, archiving and preserving it? What?
“Archiving and preserving it, what does that mean?”
YOUNG: She’s probably discovering a lot of her material through more modern means: via the Internet, E-Bay, connecting with people online. So maybe it’s not in that old-fashioned sense. But I think she’s striving to help reassess how we look at hip-hop culturally, and its cultural significance, and assembling, again, a larger contextual means of doing that.
SYREETA GATES: Like a lot of the work, XXL, Vibe Magazine, The Source, happened in the 90s, and none of that stuff is digitized. So that led me to collecting their work because I wanted to read Kevin Powell’s Tupac story, or I wanted to read Greg Tate in The Village Voice and all of these writers. And the only way I could do that is if I literally bought the magazine.
Everything that I do is always going to be around archiving and preserving. Like, thinking about what new content can be created so that the generations that were born when Biggie Smalls died now has contexts around why he was important, why he was the king of New York, etc.
YOUNG: So we thought it was important to represent as part of the food chain of the book world, and also the role that institutions and libraries play in all of this, that we at least represent one institution. So, we thought the Schomburg Center would be a great place to do it.
[CLIP from The Booksellers, directed by D.W. Young. The speaker is Kevin Young.]
KEVIN YOUNG: At the Schomburg, in terms of rarities, we have everything from Malcom X’s papers to Lorraine Hansberry’s and James Baldwin’s papers.
YOUNG: And, Kevin Young, who’s the director of the Schomburg gave us a really fantastic interview.
YOUNG: What’s really interesting is the way that collectors shape collections that end up at archives.
BOGAEV: Well, switching gears for a moment, some of the characters in this film, they’re just totally characters. For instance, Jim Cummins is a bookseller that, when we first meet him, he’s standing in an aisle in his warehouse with 10,000 books of poetry.
[CLIP from The Booksellers, directed by D.W. Young. The speaker is Jim Cummins.]
JIM CUMMINS: So this whole section, from ten shelves from each section there, there are eight or nine sections here. So you’ve got a lot of poetry.
YOUNG: I mean, there’s everything you can ever imagine in that warehouse, basically, that’s been published as a book. I think he has… I don’t know, thousands of Edward Gorey titles, for example. So, if you want anything by Edward Gorey you could find numerous copies. It’s an incredibly…
BOGAEV: Right, because he has hundreds of thousands of books in this huge, huge, huge space.
I have 300,000 books, in three different units. From valuable books to porny dollar books.
YOUNG: Jim claims he knows pretty much where everything is. I think he’s probably exaggerating a little bit, but I think he probably knows where an incredible amount of the material is. And, like many, I think, of the best book dealers—and this is often cited as one the key attributes of a great book dealer—is having a great memory. I think Jim has an amazing memory for what books he has and where they are and it’s very impressive.
JIM CUMMINS: These old bindings here. Here’s an unusual title, Amish Love. No pictures though—Oh, I guess there are pictures. I guess there are pictures. Wow.
BOGAEV: Oh, that’s wonderful. And then there’s Jay Walker. He seems to have a kind of museum in his house.
[CLIP from The Booksellers, directed by D.W. Young. The speaker is Jay Walker.]
JAY WALKER: The English has no word for what room I have is, but the German’s have an excellent word. It’s a wunderkammer, which is a cabinet of wonders.
YOUNG: He’s very consciously tried to create something that has some of the aspects of a museum or great library, you know, that you could access.
JAY WALKER: My library is unique in a variety of ways.
YOUNG: It’s generally considered one of the great private libraries of the world. And he’s got a fairly open-ended criteria for what fits in the library. Which is probably great, because it lets him pursue a lot of stuff based on his interests and it’s, you know, the Library of the History of Human Imagination.
JAY WALKER: The books are organized randomly by heart. So, you create a connection the library as opposed to me saying, “Here’s the section on naval warfare and here’s the section on flowers.” We don’t do that around here.
YOUNG: That sounds a little crazy, maybe, at face value, but he’s obviously trying to create a different kind of experience for how you discover books in a museum like that, and it’s not so formulaic.
JAY WALKER: And then it’s also unique in that it’s a purpose-built space that’s about the subject. So, the subject is imagination. The library is designed as an homage to Escher.
YOUNG: And, you know, he’s obviously got treasures galore there. We had very little time to film when we were there, so I barely got to look at anything.
BOGAEV: Oh, treasures like what, though? What did you see?
YOUNG: Well, we got to see the jeweled bindings of course.
JAY WALKER: These are jeweled bindings. In the history of the book, these are the most beautiful bindings. In each copy of a jeweled binding, you would take a book to Sangorski and Sutcliffe, and they would encase it in 24 karat gold. They would put rubies and different gems all around the book, and you would then open the book, between the gold.
YOUNG: Beyond the books themselves, a lot of amazing ephemera. I think he has one of the two pairs of the original Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz. One of the most important things he has, I believe, is—it’s not the original Declaration of Independence, but it’s this first set of copies of the Declaration of Independence. These are extraordinarily important and valuable items. That one comes to mind.
BOGAEV: You led me to my next character in your film, which is Michael Zinman.
[CLIP from The Booksellers, directed by D.W. Young. The speaker is Michael Zinman.]
MICHAEL ZINMAN: … “I realize I’m not first in your life. Your books are. Where do I stand?” I paused for about twenty seconds, counting. “Six.” Anyways, that was not the thing to say.
BOGAEV: I’m not sure what he specializes in. What is his angle?
YOUNG: Well, Michael is primary a collector, but I think he considers himself a bit of a trader.
MICHAEL ZINMAN: I bought a lot of defective books, or what people considered defective. And, that’s a moving target. What was defective then is not defective today.
YOUNG: So, as he mentions in the film, one thing he’s known to have done very astutely is to acquire a lot of books that, at the time he was buying them, were considered damaged. He once bought out the entire basement of one of the major London firms: all their damaged books. But, later on, because people understood that actually that evidence that was in those books—that historical record—didn’t really exist elsewhere in a similar form, they suddenly became much more interesting and much more collectible, and or, of course, much more valuable.
That tied into one of our central themes, which was sort of the value that dealers and collectors can bring to our understanding of history and to, sort of, academic research and study. That’s the work he did with the late Bill Reese on, what they called their “Critical Mess Theory.”
[CLIP from The Booksellers, directed by D.W. Young. The speakers is Bill Reese and Michael Zinman.]
BILL REESE: Michael and I dubbed this the “Critical Mess Theory.” That by building a big enough pile of this stuff, and then looking at it, seeing what kind of connections and patterns we found, we would come up with more reliable historical thesis than if we set out with some notion of what we were going to prove and went to go find the material to prove it.
YOUNG: I think they did some Cotton Mather stuff. They did that with The Federalist.
MICHAEL ZINMAN: And at some point, I started comparing what I had, and you learn from what you have.
YOUNG: They would buy as many copies of a given text as they could find, and then, once they had all those copies together, they would compare the differences. They would find out whether there were different printings, who bought them. Because maybe enough of them had information about the original owners, and they could assemble a different kind of record of that moment in history through this accumulation of texts.
MICHAEL ZINMAN: I don’t know why I collect, and I seem to be at the extreme end of the bell curve.
BOGAEV: Well, the writer Fran Lebowitz shows up throughout your movie as a surrogate, I guess, for book lovers and book collectors.
[CLIP from The Booksellers, directed by D.W. Young. The speaker is Fran Lebowitz.]
FRAN LEBOWITZ: They were all, like, little dusty, Jewish men who were very irritated if you wanted to buy a book. They were covered in dust. Their hands were yellow from nicotine. They always had glasses, of course, because they’ve been reading in the dark since they were, you know, six years old. And if you would go up to the and ask very politely, “How much is this book?” Half the time they wouldn’t even look up.
BOGAEV: So, given that there are a lot of book sellers like that, I am curious who you didn’t get a chance to talk to?
YOUNG: In truth no one turned us down that we asked to speak with. But I think you’re absolutely right. It’s not a group of people that one thinks of when you think of extroverts. I think also, you know, perhaps, we turn towards people who we felt would be more comfortable speaking, of course, too. If maybe there were a few people out there who were at the extreme end of introversion and discomfort being on camera, they may not have been the ideal subjects.
But, in general, I think rare book dealers, even want a part of this. They just have a great passion for what they do. Same with the collectors. They don’t always get to talk about it with everyone because it’s so specialized. So they get to talk about it with each other. But I also think that they’re very happy to have someone interested and a chance to speak more freely about what they do.
BOGAEV: Do you collect rare books?
YOUNG: I don’t. But in making the film, you see so much amazing stuff; the concept of suddenly collecting takes on a different appeal, perhaps. I think if I were not as busy as I am with other things, it would be tempting to go down that path.
BOGAEV: Well, yeah, and I want to dig into that for a moment, because there is this difference between appreciating the books for the content, obviously, and then wanting to have them and touch them—which is really compelling. I mean, when you stand, for instance, in the Folger, you stand in front of a book that has been touched by a Queen Elizabeth or something that Abraham Lincoln’s hands have touched. It’s magical. So, doing this film, what insight did you get into what compels people to value the physical material object of the book?
[CLIP from The Booksellers, directed by D.W. Young.]
We were just talking about the smell of old books, and, kind of, the magic that is in, you know, some of these beautiful editions.
YOUNG: To return to the Schomburg, when Kevin was showing us some material from the James Baldwin archive, stuff that Baldwin had handled personally. It was notes. It was little bits of pieces of Baldwin’s life, but also his creative process, suddenly just, you know, right there in front of you. That’s very powerful. You feel like you’re connected to him in a unique way.
And Justin Schiller—he’s in the film, and he didn’t mention this in his interview, but I’ve talked to him since, has a wonderful story about this—He had, for many years, Lewis Carroll’s personal edition of Alice in Wonderland. And he finally decided to sell it. But when he did, he said, “You know, It’s still with me now.” He said, “In having had it,”—and again I’m paraphrasing a little bit, but this feeling that you spent this time with the book, and you’ll always have a piece of it with you. I think that’s a very profound concept; that you’ve got something in you that traces back to Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland in their very nascent form.
BOGAEV: Hmm. The other thing that I think is fascinating about a lot of these books is that you can find artifacts from other times that anthropologists, archaeologists, look at. Like a butterfly wing from hundreds of years ago.
[CLIP from The Booksellers, directed by D.W. Young.]
They actually mounted a couple of examples of actual mammoth hair onto the back of the album. So that’s real mammoth hair from, y’know, probably 15,000 years ago.
YOUNG: Dust bunnies are another thing they can examine, I know about. Yeah, that’s a topic unto itself, and there is an interesting aspect of the cutting-edge science and scientific analysis that has come into play a bit in the book world. That’s quite fascinating.
BOGAEV: The forensics.
BOGAEV: Yeah. So, we’ve been talking about the past. What’s the future of books and the future of book selling?
YOUNG: Well, during the pandemic, who knows what the future is of anything? But I think for the rare book world, the concern is not so much like books are going to disappear entirely, or that people are going to absolutely going to stop reading. I think it’s more concern that there’s going to be a contraction. Their ability to be a kind of viable industry that they are now, might be reduced to the point where a much more limited number of people can engage. I hope that that’s not the case.
If you look at some of the stuff that the younger dealers are doing. The different kinds of material they’re representing, and kind of what might be considered a rare book is changing a little, too. I think there’s room for optimism. But, of course, you know, I think the fact that people are still reading physical books, to a great degree, is heartening.
BOGAEV: What was the most extraordinary book you came across in the process of making the film? And did you come across any Shakespeare?
YOUNG: Shakespeare? The only Shakespeare we really noted was, there was the third folio being sold by Cummins. But we do have a little bit of a Shakespeare tie-in, in that our producer Dan Wechsler—who is also a well-known rare book dealer in New York—he and his partner, George Koppelman, have a very fascinating Elizabethan dictionary that has been at the Folger on loan for the last few years. We actually have done a little recording of that story line, as a separate project.
So, that’s a little Shakespeare outside this movie, but is of… perhaps, might be of interest to Folger folk. That was the only Shakespeare—I mean, the thing with Shakespeare is, a lot of the best stuff, of course, is at the Folger or in the UK.
BOGAEV: That is really wonderful. And you’ve teased something that makes me think we might be talking to you again on the podcast. I hope so.
YOUNG: One day.
BOGAEV: Well, I’ll just say thank you so much. I can’t wait to see what comes of the film that has the Folger connection. And I hope to see you again on the podcast. Or hear your voice in my ears.
YOUNG: Thanks so much. Thanks for having me.
WITMORE: D.W. Young’s films have screened at festivals around the world including the New York Film Festival, South by Southwest, the Vancouver International Film Festival, and many more. His new film, The Booksellers, is streaming on iTunes, Amazon, and other Video-On-Demand platforms in the US. It’s also available on DVD and through virtual cinema screenings. D.W. was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Our podcast, “I Loved My Books,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.
We hope you’re enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited. If you are, please do us a favor. Please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts. It helps us get the word out to people who haven’t heard it yet. We'd really appreciate your help.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu.
Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.