Hello, Bookstore | Review


Both the enchanting romanticism of documentary and its incessant curse is its unpredictability. "When I started filming in the autumn of 2019, I never could have predicted what story would present itself", director A. B. Zax shares in his director's statement. What began as a tale of one man's dedication to bookselling and the art of storytelling became a story of a community keeping hope alive throughout a dark season. 

Nestled on Housatonic St in Lenox, Massachusetts, is The Bookstore, home to rows-upon-rows of books and Matthew Tannenbaum, who bought the store ten days before his 30th birthday in 1976. His energy is as bright as the sunlight that pours through the store's windows each day as locals gather at the doorstep for their curbside pick up. The doc runs like a small-town comedy. Watching Matthew juggle his phone calls while attending to people knocking at the door searching for this-book-or-that is a delight. The unpredictable nature of managing a business in unprecedented times comes through while Zax's camera hangs back, hugging the shelves, giving us a fly-on-the-wall view. 

"Fiction is the filter through which I see the world," Matthew shares to the camera at one point, and it may as well be words from the mouth of Zax, who allows his doc to play without any filmmaker interference. We get to learn about Matthew without it feeling manufactured. He shares his story of working in The Gotham Book Mart ("I learned my trade viscerally") and gives us insight into its founder, Frances Steloff, who knew her craft despite being a non-reader. There are so many beautiful things to learn woven through the chapters of Matthew's story.

Though, through the beauty, there is pain. The realities of the pandemic hit, and The Bookstore does not go untouched. It feels like filmmakers are jumping at every opportunity to tell stories of this time despite "the end" being somewhat nascent, yet Zax's film doesn't fall victim to this. He captures the technicalities of owning a store - paying the bills, ordering the books - and the downfalls of the "independent" life when a week's worth of income becomes what usually gets made in a day. What happens next becomes the crux of the story, and the community we've seen flood in and out of the store rally in a familial way. 

These people also give us a window into Matthew's heart. "Thank you for being such a kind human being and giving us all faith in this world in little ways", one woman tells him. The response from Matthew is an anecdote from childhood where he one day explained to his father, "I'm going outside, and I'm gonna smile at people, and they're gonna be my friends". 

By the time the credits roll, it feels like Matthew is a friend. In 86 minutes, he has smiled at us many times and invited us into his world with raw openness and vulnerability. He said discovering books was like finding something "Nobody else knew. I was the only one who knew what these stories were". Watching Hello, Bookstore feels that same way. It's a secret just for those lucky enough to stumble upon its splendour, and their gift to the world is sharing it with anyone who will listen. 

Hello, Bookstore is in US theaters from April 29th 2022, and lands on Apple TV and Amazon on June 28th 2022.

UPDATE: Bulldog Film Distribution presents Hello, Bookstore in Cinemas and On Demand in the UK 30th June 2023.

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