There’s a moment in Hello, Bookstore, directed by A.B. Zax, wherein Matt Tannenbaum––owner of The Bookstore in Lenox, Massachusetts––spots a happy customer picking up a novel. “Look at the smile on that guy’s face. He found a book,” Tannenbaum marvels. He’s joyous, proud. The energy of this scene informs the whole piece. Simple, touching, and brief at 86 minutes, Zax’s documentary mostly lives in the quaint store with Tannenbaum as he makes not-so-small talk with customers. He’ll tell them a story if they have the time. Two if they acquiesce. He’s a great orator. As Tannenbaum mentions, before books, people told each other stories. It’s evident he would’ve fit right in.
Some of the film was shot in 2019, before the pandemic. Some of it was shot in 2020, during the pandemic. The contrast is stark. Scenes of a busy bookstore rub up against scenes of a locked, empty place. During the pandemic Matt stands guard at the front door, taking orders and giving recommendations through the glass. The phone rings and he answers, doing his best to wrangle the call while another confused customer knocks on the locked door, hoping to browse. If it’s a stressful sequence, Tannenbaum’s bittersweet optimism never seems to waver.
In quiet interstitials throughout he reads favorite passages from favorite texts. His voice is soft, precise. His entire demeanor is welcoming and the store itself seems to personify that same feeling. Zax does well to keep his camera apart from most of the action, rarely getting too close. Perhaps a choice made for both creative and COVID safety reasons, this unobtrusiveness allows the full body of The Bookstore to stretch out. We see the alcoves, the wine bar, the checkout desk. And while a little bit more with the town of Lenox would have been appreciated, there’s something to be said for Hello, Bookstore living solely in the world of the store itself. Watching Tannenbaum spot a book in his own supply and react with surprise and excitement is worth its weight in gold. As he opens a new delivery of books later on in the film he proclaims, “Every day is Christmas!”
This is wholesome stuff. Even as it becomes clear through the second half that The Bookstore is in real financial trouble, we believe in the town of Lenox and their determination to save it however they can. It’s uplifting, hopeful, and Capra-esque in its celebration of how capable we Americans can be in dark times. A widower left to raise two daughters, Tannenbaum’s own personal life is an underdog story. Newly a grandfather, his interaction with his grandchild offers one of the film’s more indelible sequences. Hello, Bookstore is ultimately a profile of a man as much as it is a document of a place; Zax knows that the man is the place. And vice versa. What a thrill to root for an everyday hero.
Hello, Bookstore opens on April 29 at Film Forum and will expand.