‘Hello, Bookstore’ Review: A Document of the Independent Bookstore as Oasis

·6-min read

There are times in nonfiction film when daring — and magic — arrives in a surprisingly simple and quiet way. “Hello, Bookstore” is a documentary about a venerable and beloved independent bookstore in Lenox, Mass. The place is called The Bookstore, and it first opened its doors in 1973. Ever since 1976, it has been owned and operated by Matthew Tannenbaum, a tall, solicitous, eccentric, engagingly garrulous lover of stories and words and literature who ritually answers the phone with a jaunty nerdish “Hello, bookstore!” Handsome in an eagle-ish way, with an easy smile and a full mop of gray curls, Tannenbaum, in his mid-70s, has the look and attitude of a debonair English professor, but he’s a more modest mensch than that — a boomer bibliophile without a glint of pretension, one who happily spends his days stocking shelves, poring over invoices he should have digitized years ago, and chatting away with his customers, which as often as not means trying to hook each of them up with the perfect book for them.

Independent bookstores are often places of enticing nooks and crannies, but The Bookstore is a large, rather plain one-room affair laid out like an elegant overstuffed rectangle, with a cream-colored tin ceiling, hanging globe lamps, a pair of bronze ceiling fans, and each side of the room lined with books, plus the occasional poster of someone like Kafka. In an enclave off to one side, there is even a wine bar named Get Lit (Tannenbaum: “Our motto is you can’t drink all day unless you start in the morning”). The place is organized in a way that’s sensible yet just haphazard enough — a shelf marked “Travel & Adventure” is right next to one marked “Shakespeare,” with the word “Theater” affixed almost as an afterthought — that we feel the human hand at work in every choice, every book on display. Every inch of the store is an act of curation.

“Hello, Bookstore” is about the effervescent hum of The Bookstore, a place that’s cozy and communal and rooted in Tannenbaum’s gregarious connection to the residents of Lenox; the film is also about the financial challenges the place has had to endure, especially during the pandemic. You might assume a documentary like this, in showcasing the inner vibe of a cherished independent bookstore, would use it to tell the larger story of independent bookstores in America: their beauty and value, their struggle in the age of corporatization. In a way, the film taps into all those things.

Yet “Hello, Bookstore,” directed, photographed, and co-edited by A.B. Zax, offers little in the way of rigorous detail or the sketching in of the historical big picture. The movie, which runs 86 minutes, never once leaves the store. It literally asks us to hang out there, with Tannenbaum and his books and his customers and his quirky life of the mind. With delicious casual leisure, and some choice mood music (classical guitar, jazz piano, Grieg piano suites), the film peruses the shelves of the tale it’s telling, thumbing through a page or two of backstory, lured by the cover drawing of an anecdote here, a celebrity there, then wandering over to the next shelf, rarely committing itself to making a major purchase.

By the end, however, you may feel something that’s richly moving and almost transcendental. “Hello, Bookstore” joins a small but growing cadre of documentaries, like “Carmine Street Guitars” and “California Typewriter,” that are steeped in the vanishing mystique of analog culture and the extraordinary love so many still feel for it. You could call these films nostalgic, and they’re certainly that, yet their nostalgia doesn’t end with saying, “Wasn’t this a great thing?” “Hello, Bookstore” is a salute to the sacramental qualities of art that are threaded through everyday life.

“Every day’s like Christmas,” observes Tannenbaum wryly, taking that day’s book deliveries out of the box, and we can see how this is true, because to him the books are magical objects; they’re gifts. Throughout the movie, he reads passages from some of his favorite authors, including philosophical children’s books like Maurice Sendak’s “Higgledy Piggledy Pop!” The fact that we probably don’t know what he’s reading — it could be Robert Frost, Willa Cather, Philip Roth, Edna St. Vincent Millay, or Gustav Flaubert — is kind of the point. In a funny way, he makes them all sound like philosophical children’s books, teasing out the wide-eyed discovery at the heart of so much poetry and literary fiction. We see how great writing, like the bookstore itself, forges links in the universe of imaginative delight.

Tannenbaum’s own life plays out like another story, whether he’s telling us that “I’m on credit hold with Simon & Schuster, because I owe ’em too much money,” or mentioning how his wife died after 11 years, leaving him to raise his two daughters, Shawnee and Sophie, from the ages of 7 and 3 (we meet them as grownups, just as Shawnee is pregnant with his first grandchild), or describing how he was in the Navy when a fellow sailor turned him onto Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Jack Kerouac, and Henry Miller led him to Anaïs Nin, and Anaïs Nin led him to the Gotham Book Mart, the fabled midtown Manhattan bookstore-cum-literary salon that was, at the time, the only store in America that sold her books, which is why he got a job there and found his mission, or recalling how a young musician named Patti Smith used to come into the store and talk to him about Rimbaud.

Some of the film was shot during the pandemic, and there are points when Tannenbaum is quite strict about no one coming into the store, even though it’s still technically open; he’s basically offering the bookstore equivalent of takeout cuisine. During that time, he sells about as many books in a week as he used to in one day, and this imperils the business. Can it survive?

The film captures this entrepreneurial trauma by underplaying it, keeping it almost in the background until it rears its head. Tannenbaum decides to launch a GoFundMe campaign, and buoyed by local media coverage he raises all the money he needs to stay open in just 23 hours; before long, he has raised an additional $60,000. It’s a happy ending that inspires Tannenbaum to jokingly compare himself to George Bailey, the hero of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But the comparison is very much to the point. George Bailey was saved by his homespun community because they all had such loyalty to him, all because he had such loyalty to them. Something similar happens in “Hello, Bookstore,” which is really a movie about how a deceptively quiet bookstore, when it’s put together with true love by someone like Matthew Tannenbaum, connects people to each other by connecting them all to the grand story that life is.

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