Indie Bookstores in America Focus of New Film

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A new 51-minute film, created for the Lewisburg Literary Festival and now available on Vimeo, features booksellers from across the country discussing books, bookselling, and how bookstores contribute to the health of communities nationwide. Looking for a restroom? Try Amazon, or Conversations With Booksellers, is produced, directed, and edited by the filmmaking couple Russell Williams and Annamarie Visclosky.

In anecdotes both hilarious and inspiring, indie booksellers demonstrate their love for literature and the communities they serve, while acknowledging not only the hard work and dedication they put forth each day, but also the immense satisfaction they feel in providing a critical service to their cities and towns.

The more than 25 featured booksellers represent nine stores: Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, Colorado; Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C.; Books & Books in Coral Gables, Florida; The BookMark in Neptune Beach, Florida; Prairie Lights in Iowa City, Iowa; Faulkner House Books in New Orleans, Louisiana; Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi; Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon; and Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, Washington.

But it was for the small town of Lewisburg, West Virginia’s annual literary festival, which offers author appearances, panel discussions, writing workshops, music, and performance art in a two-day celebration each summer, that Williams and Visclosky produced Looking for a restroom? Try Amazon.

At the 2012 festival, they had screened Read the First Sentence, a 10-minute film of people reading aloud the first line of their favorite books. Readers speak, whisper, and dramatize the opening lines of titles such as Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans, and Cannery Row by John Steinbeck.

After seeing the enthusiastic reception that short film garnered, Williams and Visclosky decided to create a new film for the 2013 festival, which was held at the beginning of August. They began their work on Looking for a restroom? Try Amazon in April and took about five months to complete it. “We had moved to a small town thinking we’d slow down a bit and enjoy life a little bit more,” said Williams, who is “semi-retired” from a career in filmmaking, which ran the gamut from tourism campaigns and corporate films to big-name political commercials. However, the couple soon found themselves deep into their new project.

Williams and Visclosky traveled around the country to bookstores they found based on personal connections, word of mouth, or simply by location. “We wanted to stay with the ones that maybe not everyone knows but are still really cool,” said Williams.

The conversations with booksellers and store owners were recorded simply: set in the bookstores themselves, lit mainly with natural light, and filmed on a small Canon camera. Williams and Visclosky made up the entire film crew.

The couple was warmly welcomed into the bookstores for the interviews. “There was not a lull in any of our questions and answers, or any hesitation about us coming to talk for two hours,” said Williams. “Just the genuineness of these booksellers was so welcome.”

“The authors that we talked to — that’s probably the most surprising part,” added Williams. The filmmakers had expected the booksellers to be interested in speaking with them, but the response from the authors — including Simon Van Booy, Garth Stein, Rick Atkinson — was incredible, Williams said.

Now, he hopes that booksellers will see the film and want to share it with customers and other community members.

“One of my favorite quotes [about the film] came from Miriam Sontz at Powell’s,” said Williams. Sontz, who is featured in the movie, said, “I don’t know where it will go in the world, but it certainly summarized a time, a place, and a community of booksellers with tender attention.”

“That pretty much sums it up,” said Williams, who plans to continue his literary filmmaking adventures at next year’s Lewisburg Literary Festival. 

Conversations with Booksellers from Russell Williams on Vimeo.