I began production on BookWars in 1995, when I was a bookseller on the streets of New York down in the Village. I set up mainly on Washington Square South, anywhere between LaGuardia and Mercer, but I also sold frequently over on Astor Place by Astor Wines--a great alternate spot until the city shut it down.

I'd been selling on the street for a couple years before I even picked up a camera. I was content to live a life off the books and off the grid, doing something I liked--dealing with books and the people--without getting hassled by The Man. Long before I became a street BookMan myself, in the late 80's, I'd been working on a series of notes and essays based on some of the street booksellers I'd met, including the "Original BookMan", Neil, whom I'd met during my college days. Some of these original passages ultimately wound up in the narration of the final cut of BookWars. Hence, the making of BookWars goes back a long way--at least ten years!

I'd gone to college to study Anthropology and Philosophy, and then later, filmmaking. After graduation (which I'd attended thanks to a couple scholarships and some student loans--which I still have not paid off, largely due to the expenses involved in making BookWars), I was a broke young mensch in the big city.

But I had a lot of books, so I took to them to the streets to hawk them. And thanks to my friends Nietzche, Heidegger, Kerouac, Dickinson, and others, I was able buy groceries, pay the rent, and even save money.

J. Rosette pushes a cart of books

Gradually, street bookselling became a way of life, which I pursued with vigor over the next couple years. l learned how to find more books to fuel my operation. My sources included the Friends of the Library, various book and house sales, thrift stores--and the good 'ol garbage. Out there on the street every day hustling books, I met a lot of interesting people, people who I'd probably never have associated with if I hadn't been out there on a regular basis. The street bookstand, existing in the public space (the sidewalk) is an egalitarian enterprise, and is available to any and all comers: Bibliophiles, bums, thieves, con-men, scolars, you name it.

And soon came to know the other booksellers, like Donald, Everett, Slick Rick, Boris, Paul,Pete Whitney, Polish Joe, Marv, Al Mappo, and others.

Things went well for a long while. Everybody benefitted. The people of the Village were happy to have a source of inexpensive, quality reading material at a reasonable price, and we booksellers were in control of our economic destinies, making a buck working for ourselves, doing what we liked to do, and making an honest buck* at the same time.

* Comparatively few street booksellers deal with stolen books; stolen books were not only an impractical investment money-wise, (the going rate demanded by the boosters who heisted them was typically 25%), but booksellers who dealt in stolen books were often frowned upon and ostracized by legitimate street booksellers. By "legitimate" I mean those booksellers who preferred the thrill of the hunt as they sought their stock at house sales, thrift stores, and in the rich veins of garbage all around NYC.)

Enter NYC's new incoming Mayor Giuliani. The Mayor introduced a controversial plan commonly referred to asQuality of Life, a series of efforts which basically aimed to rid the streets of undesireable elements, i.e., people who operated off the grid or outside the corporate loop, people who appeared to be outside of the system, the homeless, and a lot of other folks who lived on or made a living on the streets.

The Mayor's plan eventually impacted street vendors of all types, and soon of course affected us street booksellers. Despite the fact that that street booksellers are allowed to sell books as a general--but not necessarily technical--observance of their First Amendment rights to distribute literature, it soon became clear that the dynamic literary scene of the streets of Gotham, which so many people appreciated and relied upon for their literary kicks, was threatened with extinction.

I decided to document the scene, the world of the street booksellers which I knew from firsthand experience, at first only as a casual diary and without any distinct aim of making a "documentary". So I borrowed a camera, (any camera I could get my hands on, since I didn't have one of my own and I was what you'd call "less than rich"), and I began shooting with whatever format was available. Hence the variety of formats utilized during production: Mini DV, Hi-8, Regular 8, and Super-8 film.

Despite the virtual lack of funding, the resulting material was undoubtedly authentic as it gets, as it was produced by a genuine New York City street bookseller at his own bookstand, and at the bookstands of his fellow street booksellers at various other locations around New York. Even without funding though, I could afford to keep shooting so long as I had books to sell; when I'd run out of film or tape, I'd ask Rick or Pete to watch the stand while I ran to Rafik or the Wiz to buy more stock. So the books became fuel for production, and the entire enterprise was initially a self-sustaining entity.

After a few years of selling books, though, I started getting tired. I was weary of schlepping the books, tired of being hassled by the cops and the nearby University. I'd become jaded by the riff-raff and the swirl of the street which had once been so intoxicating. But most of all, I was just tired of standing around, tired of watching the world go by. I wanted to move, to hit the road, to move through space outside of the confines of the city.

So I sold off my books and hit the road in my beat-up Datsun. I wondered how I could transform all that footage which I'd shot on the street (about 200 hours in all) into some kind of slice of life, an impression of the literary underbelly of Gotham which I'd come to know so intimately over the years. I headed out West, to get some space and some distance from the street, in order to view the footage objectively. I stopped at a friend's offline facility/rumpus room in Albuquerque, New Mexico where I made the first assembly edit; BookWars (The entitled, "The Book Wars") showed in it's first rough incarnation on Superbowl Sunday in 1996 to a very enthusiastic audience.

Next I headed to L.A., where I hoped to gain access to some higher end non-linear equipment, using the rough cut to get some funding and assistance. But L.A. was not hospitable ground for a low-budget documentary about street people who hustle books for a living, made by a no-name director. I stayed in LA for a while, doing occasional PA gigs and actually sold books a bit down on the Venice strip--although the book buying public wasn't quite as avid as in NYC.

Through a friend, I made contact with a small production company in San Francisco: S.A.I.D Communications. They were interested in the project and had a Media 100 setup, So headed to San Francisco, where I holed up in a residential hotel in North Beach (the Hotel Liguria, where I paid $85 bucks a week to lay my head whilst I wrestled the doc.

Even after honing the picture to a very strong rough cut, I had little luck securing any outside funding. Armin Rosencranz of The Pacific Pioneer Fund, for example, told me on the phone (after my second application, well into my San Francisco phase):

"...although the panel really loved the concept and proposal, we felt you'd have to be a genius to pull it off. Therefore we have to decline funding.." Now that the doc is finished and has been invited to screen at the Museum of Modern Art here in New York, and has been broadcast around the world--for hefty licensing fees I might add--I wonder, Mr. Rosencranz, does this make me a "genius"?

Of all the foundations and funds I'd approached (Soros Foundation, Bay Area Video Coalition, Center For Alternative Media and Culture, Filmcore, Chicago Underground Film Fund, Film Arts Foundation), only the Playboy Foundation and, later, the Experimental TV Center came through with a very modest grants. Almost all money required to make the picture came out of pocket, with equipment begged, borrowed, or deferred. Nothing was advanced, there were no rich relatives, and no broadcaster advanced a single dime.

In the end, BookWars was a labor of love, made on faith and heart alone. As both street bookseller and filmmaker, I followed through to completion what I felt to be a significant social issue documentary, against the greatest of odds and difficulties. I alone was in a position to document the world of the streets of New York during those critical days when the life of the public forum was being so underhandedly threatened, as witnessed by the decline of the literary scene of the street.

Ultimately I returned to New York City (the completion of some great cycle?) to perform the final edit, color correct, mix, and begin distribution strategy under the veteran hand of Emmy-award winning filmmaker and BookWars co-producer, Michel Negroponte. BookWars went on to win the Best Documentary Award at the New York Underground Film Festival, and as of this writing (11/7/2000) has been broadcast and screened in France, Germany, Denmark, the UK, and at numerous other venues around the world. [for up to date screening info, click here.]

So, after after ten years, twelve cuts, hundreds of Kung Pao chicken dinners, 10,000 miles, thousands of dollars of out-of-pocket expenses, and thousands of hours of editing later: BookWarsis complete.

Running Time: 78 min (Feature) / 56:30 (TV); Color-USA-Stereo
2000 J Rosette / Camerado

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