As if independent bookshops don’t have enough to deal with in contending with the behemoth that is Amazon, 2020 presented them with another formidable obstacle – COVID. Hello, Bookstore tells the story of how one beloved establishment in Massachusetts made it through the pandemic.
COVID wasn’t meant to be a focus of A.B Zax’s debut documentary, however. He’d already been shooting for months when it struck; The Bookstore and its charismatic owner, Matt Tannenbaum, certainly warranted a documentary even without the intrusion of that world-shifting event. Whilst the pandemic does provide the film with something of a narrative, in much of the footage it doesn’t intrude at all; there’s a chronological jumbling to what we see that does sometimes make the viewing experience a little confusing.
Warm and gregarious, with the rumpled charm of an aging rockstar, Tannenbaum is pretty much the documentary’s sole character, but he proves more than enough as the focal point of this film. Having owned The Bookstore since 1976, he seems to know everyone in town, and is overflowing with stories about his time running the store, the people he’s met (Carly Simon, Patti Smith, and Tom Stoppard are among the starriest subjects of his many anecdotes), and the books he loves. It’s lovely to watch him interacting with people, sharing the things he loves most with the customers he adores.
There’s a magnetic cosiness to Hello, Bookstore, which takes place almost entirely within the narrow confines of Tannenbaum’s Massachusetts icon. Over the duration of the film, we become intimately attuned to the store’s bijou geography: the impromptu office set-up right by the entrance, where – when COVID isn’t raging – friends pop by to pay Tannenbaum a visit; the tiny ‘Get Lit’ wine bar (which has one hell of an origin story); the basement, with its precious stock of second hand treasures. Together with the changing light from the changing of the seasons, the documentary conjures up the world of The Bookstore so vividly, by the time the closing credits have rolled, it’s difficult to believe we haven’t been physically transported there.
That The Bookstore is usually such a friendly, vibrant environment makes the unavoidable austerity of the COVID era all the sadder; Tannenbaum prowls around morosely, a showman without an audience. In addition to portraying the atmospheric dampening of the pandemic, Hello, Bookstore excels at depicting the logistical headaches of running an independent bookstore when you can’t get near your customers. Watching him trying to take payments through the closed front door of the store, with both his and his customers’ masks making the process of reading and inputting card payments frustratingly laborious, underlines what a foreboding level of patience it must have taken to keep going. When a simple transaction becomes so arduous, it’s no surprise that in the deepest depths of the pandemic, Tannenbaum’s weekly sales amounted to what he used to make in a day. It seems a miracle is necessary to save the much-loved local institution – whether or not The Bookstore gets one, you’ll have to watch to find out.
In addition to being a charming character study, Hello, Bookstore is a tribute to the persistence of independent retailers, and a heartfelt plea to continue supporting them so they won’t disappear for good. After all, as the closing epigraph states, ‘Every town has a story worth saving’.
Bulldog Film Distribution presents Hello, Bookstore in cinemas and on demand 30 June