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Peeking Into the World of Rare Books

The New York International Antiquarian Book Fair, held every March at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan, is the world’s premier gathering of buyers, sellers and lovers of rare books. It’s a kind of Woodstock for the ultra-bookish, where museum-like displays of stunningly bound 16th-century volumes and illuminated manuscripts are surrounded by booths specializing in rare maps, historical documents, vintage crime novels, counterculture ephemera and just about anything else, as long as it’s (mostly) on paper.

One veteran dealer interviewed in the early scenes of “The Booksellers,” a documentary opening Friday, just time for this year’s fair, calls it “a roller-coaster ride between tedium and great bits of commerce and discoveries.”

For the less jaded first-time visitor, it can also be an overwhelming explosion of stimulation.

“Going in, you might imagine it’s a bunch of old brown spines, but it’s completely the opposite,” D.W. Young, the film’s director, said last week while sitting in a the suitably book-crammed offices of Sanctuary Books, a rare-book outfit a few blocks from the armory. “It’s just an amazingly visually rich experience.”

Another thing you might not expect: The world of rare books is a surprisingly tactile place.

“I was amazed by how much you can touch,” Judith Mizrachy, one of the film’s producers, said, recalling the first time she visited the shop. “But you realize that these things last. They’re meant to be held, and they’ve made it this far.”

Survival — of books, and of the rare-book business itself — is a major theme of the documentary, which plunges viewers into this world via the passionate, eclectic, undersung people who make it all hum: the booksellers.

It was one of them, Daniel Wechsler, the proprietor of Sanctuary Books, who first brought up the idea of a documentary seven years ago with Young and Mizrachy (with whom he’d collaborated on an earlier documentary, about a New York City street photographer).

By the time they began working on it a few years later, the project had taken on greater urgency, as more figures from their imagined dream cast of characters — like Martin Stone, the British rock guitarist turned book scout — died. (Stone, the story goes, was once considered to replace Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones but chose a life of digging through crates of books instead.)

“This was the generation that really made their mark before the internet,” Wechsler said. “If we didn’t record their contributions, they might not be around much longer.”

The film’s approach is immersive, treating its subjects — mainly booksellers, but also collectors, auctioneers, curators and others up and down the trade’s food chain — less as talking heads than as “jazz soloists,” as Young put it, offering variations on recurring themes. If there’s an underlying bass note, it’s the way the profession is driven by equal parts commerce, scholarship and sheer love.

“Booksellers are providing something beyond the mercantile,” Young said. “They perform a core function of preservation.”

Wechsler, 52, got into the business about 30 years ago, after a post-college stint at Second Story Books outside Washington. A few years ago, he had a brush with fame, or at least the antiquarian bookseller’s version of it, when he and a colleague announced the discovery of an elaborately annotated 1580 dictionary they hypothesized might have belonged to Shakespeare (a claim that has been met with respectful skepticism).

Sanctuary, housed in an unassuming midcentury office overlooking a tony stretch of Madison Avenue (and open by appointment only), is suitably atmospheric, particularly as the late afternoon light filters in.

“Sometimes bookstores will have that one embarrassing section,” Wechsler said, giving the crammed shelves a self-conscious scan as a photographer began shooting. “But I think this is pretty good right now.”

Still, it’s nothing compared with some of the jaw-dropping spaces the documentary peeks into, like the collector Jay Walker’s M.C. Escher-inspired Library of the History of Human Imagination (complete with floating platforms and glass-paneled bridges); or the vast warehouse of the dealer James Cummins, crammed with 300,000-plus books — New Jersey’s answer to Jorge Luis Borges’s infinite Library of Babel.

And then there are the film’s more alarming settings. In one sequence, the camera follows a dealer on a scouting trip to a stunningly decrepit apartment off Central Park West belonging to a recently deceased academic.

“It was toxic — the mold, the broken windows,” Young recalled. “It was just full of books. And they all had to go somewhere.”

The film explores the ways the internet has radically transformed (some of the gloomier voices might say “destroyed”) the rare-book business, taking away “the dark and murky and fun aspects” of the hunt, as one dealer puts it, while disastrously flooding the market for some kinds of books, like modern first editions.

But the filmmakers also show a hopeful infusion of new blood and an opening up to new collecting areas (hip-hop ephemera, zines, comics), new ways of selling and a (somewhat) more diverse demographic.

“The film captures what I love about bookselling, which is that there are lots of different ways to do it,” Heather O’Donnell, the founder of the Brooklyn-based Honey & Wax Booksellers, said in an interview this week. “It’s not some secret elite club.”

Last week, O’Donnell, who appears in the documentary, started posting images to a new Instagram account, @europaredux, in an effort to crowdsource information about one of her offerings at this year’s fair: a collection of 7,000 illustrations from prewar Europe, made by an unidentified Swiss artist who captioned them in an imaginary language.

“Social media has the potential to open things up to so many different kinds of people and different kinds of material,” she said. “You can start as a bookseller with just 10 books on Etsy.”

The New York Antiquarian Book Fair

Through Sunday at the Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue, New York; 212-777-5218, nyantiquarianbookfair.com.

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