Hello, Bookstore is soothing, cozy documentary but one entirely devoid of stakes or storytelling thrust.
Hello, Bookstore opens with footage shot in the early weeks of the pandemic, images of the surreal, almost dystopic shape our lives during that initial lock-down fortnight of March 2020. Specifically, the subject here is Matt Tannenbaum, proprietor of The Bookstore in Lenox, MA, our first introduction to which is a masked Matt hollering instructions through the front door, turning away would-be browsers and facilitating curbside pick-ups. Despite our failure to return to a true normalcy in the ensuing two years, these early quarantine days feel like a distant memory, and Matt’s early interactions here suggest a film inclined toward capturing that interia of spring 2020, the ghost-town living that suffocated so many and hampered small businesses across the world. But director A.B. Zax’s documentary began shooting long before Covid fundamentally changed our social frameworks, and he soon cuts back to pre-pandemic days, showing Matt in his element, a gab artist sipping vino from The Bookstore’s wine bar and waxing literary with a stream of ebullient customers. Hello, Bookstore proceeds according to this ebb and flow, slipping from scenes of “glory days” into the logistical and fiscal concerns of Covid-era bookselling, and back again; the structure operates as a loose mosaic, with only our understanding of pre- and post-pandemic marking any sense of time.
But these early sequences are something of a red herring, as the film is only about Covid in an organic sense, presentational rather than propositional. Much more time is actually dedicated to the film this was to be before, which centers Matt as the core character — and character he is. A sort of post-hippie booknik, he enthusiastically chats about current and favorite reads with guests, recalls learning the trade at the legendary Gotham Book Mart, and quotes florid passages from memory. And, predictably for a man of this profession and temperament, he spews plenty of memorable dictums: “There are two novels: the one that you write and the one that you talk about at the bar. I’ve been sitting at the bar for 42 years.” In this way, Hello, Bookstore settles into a soothing rhythm, an almost ASMR-esque viewing experience for literature lovers, more the soft blanket you curl up with than the book itself.
But the flip side of this coziness, then, is that the film can feel fairly aimless. It’s a far more experiential watch than one motivated by any governing ideas, gentle but meandering. Given the onslaught of Covid cinema that has been borne of the past two years, it may be a blessing that we’re not here entreated to yet another bit of observational pandemic movie-making with little of substance to add to the discourse, but Hello, Bookstore has an undeniably low ceiling in the absence of any more driving purpose. Matt makes for an agreeably quirky presence to follow around, and more than anything this is a character study, but this too doesn’t merit even the scant 83-minute runtime. Moment to moment, this thesis-less approach makes for a nice documentary switch-up, as does limiting the talking-head moments to only Matt’s perspective: the transactional nature of his relationship to customers abuts everyone’s seemingly genuine love for the gregarious bibliophile, adding a bit of intrigue to watching the interactions unfold. But the film ultimately remains a slight affair, with only the calming quality of its niche setting much distinguishing it. As background noise for book lovers doing some light cleaning, Hello, Bookstore is an agreeable enough oddity, but even that targeted audience would probably find more pleasure in just picking up a book.
Published as part of Before We Vanish — April 2022.