BookWars

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BookWars

Shot for little money on small-format video, Jason Rosette's personal, fitfully interesting documentary BookWars has a pleasingly on-the-fly quality that suits its subjects, the sidewalk booksellers who hawk their wares on West 4th Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. Rosette, himself a former book vendor near NYU's Bobst Library, turns the camera on his eccentric compatriots and idly wonders who they are, where they come from, and how they ply their trade. Though similar in temperament, the sellers on West 4th and Sixth have little else in common: The former, mostly white and college-educated, deal in literary classics and popular fiction, stocked from fire sales in places like New Jersey, "land of the 10-cent book." The latter, primarily black and homeless, specialize in reselling discarded magazines and comic books. Rosette, an unfocused and flaky narrator, doesn't take enough care in drawing out the distinctions between the two, perhaps naturally gravitating toward his friends at the foot of Washington Square Park. Few of the personalities are given enough time to resonate—the film seems made for New Yorkers who are curious about these familiar faces—but BookWars does offer an authentic sense of what it's like to work in the trenches. Through adverse weather, wild fluctuations in business, and an unreliable pipeline of supplies, the vendors soldier on mightily, living hand-to-mouth while tenuously manning their ever-shrinking territory. Police efforts to crack down on street booksellers under Giuliani's "quality of living" campaign represent the most compelling portion of the film, raising thorny issues about the right to practice business under the First Amendment umbrella. But Rosette doesn't introduce this angle until nearly an hour into his 80-minute documentary, leaving little time to examine the panic and infighting that threaten to undermine his subjects' once-friendly competition. As a casual glimpse into a maverick trade, BookWars makes for a loose and agreeable introduction, but considering the wealth of interesting material, too much is left undernourished.

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