Directed by A.B. Zax
Here we have a gentle and charming documentary, and on a subject very close to my heart – a local bookshop. Matt Tannenbaum has owned The Bookstore in Lennox, Massachusetts, since the mid-1970s. The Bookstore is a lovely-looking independent bookshop, they type I think many of us who are book-lovers adore – an eclectic mix of titles assembled by the booksellers, piles on tables and corners, unusual books rubbing shoulders with popular, bestselling fiction, the sort of place you can happily spend several hours browsing in.
This is a world I know very well – I’ve been a bookseller for over three decades now, and am fortunate enough to work in a small (but mighty, not to mention award-winning) bookshop, which like Matt’s is far more than a business, it’s a special place in the community. Regulars come in as much for a book browse or reading recommendation as they do a wee chat. Parents can have a nice browse for their own books because the kids are happily sitting in a corner of the children’s section, noses stuck in books, the world beyond forgotten, swapped for the land of words and stories.
Indy bookselling, indeed independent small retailing of any kind, is often precarious – you have limited resources, compared to large company chain-run stores, these days there’s the competition from online (especially a certain river-named site), it can be tough going. But one of the critical differences between many Indy bookshops and big company chains or online is that they are often located in local communities. That’s a crucial factor – they are important places for many of the locals. Like the local pub or coffee shop, they are there as a business, yes, but they are also a hub where people meet, a safe space to relax, those who work there know many of the customers by name and can offer up personal recommendations for adults and younger readers alike.
And when times get even tougher, as they did during Covid, that community aspect is vital. We see Matt and his friends doing what many of us did, trying to keep things running in some form during all the restrictions of the Pandemic, taking orders over the phone or email, or serving people in the doorway (when it wasn’t safe for them to come inside and browse). Like many businesses, we went through the same – having to be closed for a while, then allowed to do a “click and collect” service from the doorway. It allowed some sales, although far less than normal, but it also offered a lifeline to locals; with so many places closed, people stuck at home and only able to walk a short distance during restrictions, being able to ring the local wee bookshop and pick up from there was a great thing in a hard time.
And that’s where the community aspect comes in again – because that same community appreciates all the local bookshop gives, and as it struggles increasingly during the Covid restrictions, rallies around to support that bookshop, to ensure its survival. We’ve all seen the decline of high streets in towns and cities around the world, far too many are full of empty units where there used to be numerous independently owned shops. The old adage of “use it or lose it” is true, if we don’t use those locals businesses, we end up with dead high streets and reliant on a few big chains and online. And clearly the readers of Lennox understand this, because they support The Bookshop through its toughest times, because this is a place they want to keep in their community.
The documentary itself is a gentle delight, taking some scenes through the seasons, intercut with Matt chatting with regulars, reading quotes from some of his favourite works, talking about how he first got into bookselling (he talks about a friend after his navy service, turning him onto Kerouac, Mailer and more and how the then “fell in love with writing”). It’s another aspect of the trade I am very familiar with – few people are in the book trade to make big money; booksellers, distributors, writers (unless you are fortunate enough to become a Stephen King or Ian Rankin or J.K. Rowling) rarely make a lot, they are in it because, well, they love books, they love stories. And there is something rather wonderful about that, which Zax showcases beautifully here. This is just a charming, lovely watch, especially for those of us who are forever in love with the written word and those lovely, tome-lined emporiums where we can find them.
Hello, Bookstore is out now in some cinemas and on demand from Bulldog Film Distribution
This review was originally penned for Live For Films