It’s hard to imagine a more effective accidental pandemic story than the one told by director A.B. Zax in the forthcoming Hello Bookstore. While the spoiler is right in the logline—In the shadow of the pandemic, a small town rallies to protect a beloved local bookstore—that wasn’t the film Zax set out to make in the fall of 2019. It is that fact, more than anything else, that makes this a documentary of what was lost as much as what was gained over the last three years.
There’s no denying Hello Bookstore is as heartwarming and life-affirming as advertised, but this is not feel-good fluff. Think of the plans you were making in late 2019, think of how they changed as we entered 2020. The promise of the story that Zax was working on could only be nodded towards as the pandemic demanded consideration.
Matt Tannenbaum exudes the kind of background and charisma that makes him documentary subject material without the apocalyptic backdrop, and throughout I thought about the tragedy of that untold story, of all the untold or reworked stories undertaken in ignorance of the looming pandemic.
The Bookstore’s charm, its place in Lenox, Mass., and the characters that pass through all had to give way to the pandemic, both in the film and in real life. That evoked a sadness in me that lingered throughout the film. Never has the was/could-have-been divide we all experienced played out with such quiet resolve as it does here.
A Perfect Character
Tannenbaum purchased The Bookstore from David Silverstein on (or about) April Fool’s Day, 1976. It was the third incarnation of the book store/publishing house Silverstein had founded in Stockbridge, Mass. next to The Back Room restaurant, later immortalized as Alice’s Restaurant.
The counterculture movement looms throughout the background of the story and plays a not-insignificant role in helping us understand Tannenbaum. This is not a man who feels bound by convention, to both his credit and his blame.
He started his career at the Gotham Book Mart and learned his trade at the feet of that seminal bookstore’s founder (and a character in her own right) Frances Stelov. There are a tantalizing number of throwaway lines from famous encounters.
One of my favorites was when Tannenbaum recounts approaching a young woman he believed he knew from The Bookstore. At a loss, he apologized and asked her name.
Without the pandemic, this still would have been a film worth making and a film worth watching, which just hammers home the bizarro world we entered in the late winter of 2020.
The movie opens with quick vignettes set to frenetic music of Tannenbaum and would-be customers shouting at one another through masks and the glass door trying to transact business.
As some businesses in town start reopening, we watch Tannenbaum choose the safer, harder route by sticking with no-contact business. This couldn’t have been an easy decision, but we come to see that in addition to Tannenbaum’s age, we come to learn that he is an expectant grandfather.
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.–Matthew Tannenbaum
I was not prepared for the first cut to pre-pandemic footage, to be challenged by my own memories of that time, and of the utter ignorance with which we plunged into Christmas 2019. It was harder to watch than I might have thought—people leaning in close at the store’s wine bar, Get Lit!, browsing together, conversing over books, and laughing.
Here, Tannenbaum, who wasn’t quite terse as a through-the-door bookseller, is absolutely in his element. Every standalone shot of Tannenbaum telling a story, or reading from some of his favorite works is captivating. Watching him interact with people browsing or drinking at the bar is next level. This is a man born to regale. One for whom proximity is key. He isn’t just charismatic, he also is authentic and people within his aura can sense it.
The tragedy isn’t that he nearly loses his store, it is that he is cut off from being with other book lovers. Even in the scenes where he discusses his finances and worries about who and how he will pay, the alienation comes through, and eventually, I found myself checking for neckwear. The happy Tannenbaum in a bowtie or necktie versus the sadder, warier Tannenbaum with a mask around his neck.
That becomes the theme upon which the film turns: What happens when an extravert book lover has all the books he would ever want but no one to hand them to?
The answer, simply put, is that he goes broke.
Watching the Pandemic Unfold
Zax and co-editor Mark Franks bring the story along at a comfortable enough pace that we can enjoy the look of the film as they fill in the story with dollops of Tannenbaum reading poetry and prose intercut with exposition.
We learn about Tannenbaum’s life, a widowed father of two daughters, who struggled to put together a business that wasn’t financially sound in the best of times. He’s renting the space, which means (according to his accountant) that the business is worthless. It’s a truth that is hard to hear, but between the debt and the immense stock, there’s nothing to salvage.
It’s heartbreaking to watch him come to the realization that, on paper, his entire career has been a zero-sum game. I mean, Tannenbaum always knew that. He did the books, he understood the margins.
“There are two novels,” he says. “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.”
Fiction, for Tannenbaum, isn’t an escape but an invitation to deeper insight. The best fiction brings us closer to connecting with the things that make us human, and Tannenbaum hasn’t missed a word of the best fiction since the Nixon Administration.
This isn’t a man who is going to hard-sell his way back into the black or is going to find efficiencies that suddenly make being a bookseller profitable. How appropriate, then, that in his hour of need he does nothing so hardheaded as digging in for a long fight.
Instead, he leaves the question to his community and the response is too beautiful for fiction because it is more than fanciful; it is real.
Hello, Bookstore is in limited theatrical release on April 29 and on-demand and DVD on June 28. It’s slated to be shown at the Rehoboth Beach Film Festival, running April 13-23.