Book 'em, Dano
NYC street vendors subject of Book Wars
You have to admire obsession. Your ordinary, average person gets interested in something, say, the Kennedy assassination or the mystery of Atlantis or corduroy, they poke around for a while, read an article somewhere, watch something on the Discovery Channel, and then remember that they have to feed the dog and go to work and bathe. The fit passes and they go on with their lives. That's the trouble with normal people. No stamina.
The obsessive, now, is totally different. The obsessive doesn't just think about something or interest her or himself in a subject. The obsessive inhabits it, and it consumes him. There is nothing outside his obsession. As far as the obsessives are concerned, real life is something that happens to other people.
Obsession is the force that prowls just beneath the surface of BookWars. Way back in the early '90s, filmmaker Jason Rosette found himself, like so many do, out of college, out of cash and deep in debt. In a bid to keep a roof over his head (no easy task in New York City), Rosette took to peddling on the street the one thing with which higher education had left him a superfluity: books.
He was not alone. Street booksellers have been a feature of the Big Apple metroscape for decades, and many of the vendors working alongside Rosette on Sixth Avenue were longstanding veterans of the recycled reading material trade. Hawking the rarities and remnants picked up at thrift stores and yard sales or scavenged out of the trash, itinerant lit pimps are a vivid part of the urban culture — and in 1995, Rosette, a relative newcomer to the racket and a self-styled nouveau Beat, started chronicling this local color.
Using an array of low-end media; Super8, 8mm video, DV, anything a hand-to-mouth page peddler could afford, Rosette recorded hundreds of hours of footage of his fellow booksellers. They make for a memorable bunch: mysterious emigres, a toad-fancier with dreams of owning a real bookstore, a born-again bookman with an evangelical approach, a stogie-smoking cartographiliac who specializes in maps and atlases.
The diverse characters have only two things in common: All of them are imperiled by then-newly elected mayor Rudy Giuliani's campaign to sanitize New York's streets, which includes squeezing the street vendors out, and all of them, in one way or another, are caught up in a obsessive circuit, ferreting out fragments of vanishing print culture for the fanatic few still in the grips of the book bug.
Casual passersby buy books, sure, and some vendors would be just as likely to sell hot dogs or faux Rolex watches as used volumes of Hume and Roethke, but one gets the sense that the hardcore street sellers are the connection for serious print addicts. We meet some of these people, people who truly get off on finding that out-of-print oddity or that antique edition. Whatever their individual fixation — Eastern religion, ancient history or Satanism — they are all a little bit mad and a whole lot in love with the very bookness of books.
And some of the sellers share this obsession. Seen through the intimate eyes of Rosette's modest media, the street booksellers of New York emerge as more than stock players in the tragicomedy of street culture; they are a link in a tenuous chain connecting us to entire traditions in art, thought and culture, salvaging and circulating data and discourses in danger of swirling away into the backwaters of the electrified Information Age. The very existence of the booksellers is a precious reminder that the Internet is not God, and that there is still magic in books.