Film Reviews

Hello, Bookstore – Documentary Review

“What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not foolin’ a soul.” – Neil Gaiman, American Gods.

In our modern digital era of having things downloadable at the touch of a button, e-readers have become increasingly common. For people who care about minimalism and want to have a life with as little clutter as possible, then why use all that precious space with many books when you can have all of them on a tablet?

Why indeed? Well, whilst convenience is quite a big selling point, there still seems something rather insipid, anodyne and – let’s be honest – soulless about literature existing on just a screen, rather than on a printed page. Talk to anyone who could be considered a bibliomaniac or tsundoku, and they will likely tell you that there is something about books which makes for a very visceral experience, which is hard to replicate with the electronic medium instead. Yes, ironically enough, actual tangible books can be a better way to kindle one’s love of reading.

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Just go into any bookshop, and there is a palpable feeling of sensory stimulation, from the smell of the books, to the feel. It makes for a powerful connection with the subject matter, one which is nigh-on impossible to replicate technologically. For second-hand bookshops especially, there is such an air of anticipation and excitement which comes with the browsing of the shelves, awaiting a potential discovery of something purely by chance. Somehow, scrolling up and down a list of titles on a monitor or tablet lacks the same kind of je ne sais quoi, that old-school romanticism.

Of course, the onslaught of the internet – which has seen a marked impact on your average high street, all thanks to its 24/7, delivered-to-your-door convenience – has helped to erode the traditional retail sector by degrees. Just look at the mighty, seemingly unassailable behemoth that is Amazon, which positioned itself as the World’s Largest Bookseller”, and threatened the livelihoods of independent booksellers all across the globe. However, a more recent threat came in the form of COVID-19, with the lockdown forcing stores to be temporarily shuttered, badly hobbling conventional in-person shopping.

Even larger retailers went to the wall during the pandemic, in what became something of a chainstore massacre. So for the stalwart indie traders, things were even more parlous, as the circumstances forced them to adapt or wither on the vine. A case in point is The Bookstore in Lenox, Massachusetts, the pride and joy for over four decades of Matt Tannenbaum, the proprietor and heart of the business. His struggle to keep the store trading during a time of global crisis is illustrated in the documentary feature Hello, Bookstore, which also acts as a clarion call for the human spirit and the awesome power that can come from communities.

Although the World Health Organisation recently declared there was an end to COVID-19 as a public health emergency, for many people the effects still linger, with a struggle to try and process and come to terms with what we have all been through. Features like Hello, Bookstore act as a snapshot of this largely unprecedented (at least, in our lifetimes) event, and may help us deal with what happened, by reminding us of the sheer resilience of people while under great strain and adversity. The lockdowns were hugely isolating, and denied us even the simple pleasure of causal browsing.

For places like The Bookstore, where it was a significant part of their lifeblood, the shock was seismic, and suddenly their profits nosedived, putting their viability in doubt. With Matt Tannenbaum clearly being such a people person, to suddenly be denied that kind of personal contact – which can make it a far more rewarding and less impersonal experience than an online shop for the customer – this was as much of a blow as the inevitable financial one. The documentary shows us how Tannenbaum is equally as important to the good townsfolk of Lenox as the store itself, and is a key part of its success and longevity, the two being intertwined and indivisible.

Quietly spoken, yet truly engaging with his enthusiasm, dry wit and clear passion for all things literary, Tannenbaum is a remarkable man, as someone who has faced his own share of personal issues and travails, but done so with good grace and humility, and given far more than he has taken. Although the film is called Hello, Bookstore, it could have as easily been ‘O Tannenbaum’, as this documentary is definitely as much his story as the bricks and mortar which has given him his living, and acted as his second home. You can clearly see why this is such a revered institution, and grasp just why its loss would be keenly felt.

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As well as this being a love letter to independent traders and booksellers in particular, Hello, Bookstore demonstrates to us all why community matters, particularly through periods of hardship. Small towns can have the biggest hearts, and – above all else – the documentary dares to show the audacity of hope, with people rallying round somebody who has done so much for them, repaying his kindness in his hour of need. Where people are used to fast pacing and momentum in the storytelling we tend to get nowadays, this is so delightfully old-fashioned in its simplicity and pace, affording us time to not just breathe, but also to think and to bask.

Hello, Bookstore makes one wish to pause and linger a while in the presence of your most genial of hosts, a man for whom mixing business with pleasure has been both his calling and his good fortune. This is a heartwarming, feelgood film, and reaffirms that kindness and goodwill are not alien concepts in a seemingly increasingly fragmented society. We can truly cheer for folks like Tannenbaum and his ilk, these happy few, this band of bibliophiles, as their wares and the service truly enrich us all. Hello, Bookstore is such a sorely-needed balm for the soul, one which speaks volumes about cherishing the people and things which we hold most dear, as they could be gone before we know it.

Hello, Bookstore is out in Cinemas and On Demand on 30th June.

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