Mason Engel on a stop in “The Bookstour.” Photo courtesy of Mason Engel

If you’re making a far-ranging documentary profiling all of the best independent bookstores on the East Coast, you’re going to come to Portland.

Sure enough, author and first-time filmmaker Mason Engel wound up interviewing the fine folks at our own Longfellow Books, one of 50 indie bookstores spotlighted as part of “The Bookstour,” Engel’s 30-minute examination of how shopping local is better than just clicking “Buy now” on that ubiquitous, brick-and-mortar-gobbling website. 

OK, it’s Amazon, the modest little bookselling website that’s grown to devour a shocking amount of the retail landscape over the years, and which, as Engel notes, has a sneaky side-hustle most people don’t realize.

“It’s the only way we can do it,” Engel said of the online giant’s stranglehold on the sales and distribution of self-published books like Engel’s own sci-fi novel “2084.” While a lifeline for authors attempting to break into the increasingly competitive publishing world, Amazon’s near monopoly meant that Engel’s initial publicity tour in what became “The Bookstour’s” years-long journey was fraught with more than a bit of awkwardness.

“I was approaching booksellers with a product they couldn’t sell,” Engel said of his original, self-financed blitz to promote “2084” in actual bookstores. “It was a lot of misplaced hustle.”

Engel admits to just “showing up with no announcement and talking to the first bookseller I saw” in order to, as all authors must, do the hard work of getting himself and his work known.

“It was good promotion for me, not so much good for relationships with booksellers,” said Engel, who’d use social media to drum up local interest in his work before each appearance. 

But the journal and the cellphone videos Engel found himself compelled to make as he interacted with dozens of bookstore owners who, like him, were battling for survival in the ruthless world of Amazon, gradually came together in Engel’s mind. So author became filmmaker as Engel and a trusty cameraperson loaded up the car and plotted a loop of 50 indie bookstores in 17 long days, headed where the independent spirit and love of books were thriving.

Engel picked the East, since population (and bookstore) density made the grueling (and cost-conscious) trip feasible. He chose Longfellow Books by Googling “best indie bookstores,” and smartly going with his gut that an evocative name promises a store with “personality and quirkiness.” And so “The Bookstour” gradually took shape, eventually serving as a book lover’s testament to the unique and irreplaceable role the actual, physical bookstore plays in the life of a community.

During our phone conversation, I shared my experience working at Videoport, another beloved Portland independent source for entertainment and edification that finally succumbed to the forces of the internet giants, with their dual cudgels of glib convenience and mass-marketing. Engel sympathized, while noting how his film introduces the concept of “legacy technologies” to explain why books (unlike Videoport’s beloved DVDs and Blu-rays) have a subtle but important leg up when it comes to weathering the online onslaught. 

“The ability and opportunity for physical engagement with the product that you’re purchasing is key,” said Engel, whose film includes a brief appearance by Harvard professor Ryan Raffaelli, originator of the legacy technology concept. “You have a continued relationship with the object. It’s something you have, something that you interact with everywhere from the beach to the bath. You get it dirty. Places that sell things like that are places that people are more willing to support.” 

It’s an interesting point. And while I have written at length about my obsession with curating a physical space for my movies on physical media, I had to concede that I also have a whole lot more bookshelf space – and that I am more prone to handle my books. (Engel asked if I “cuddle” my DVDs, and I chose not to answer.) Apart from this, “The Bookstour” represents author Engel’s way to give back to the local institutions that formed his own, inevitably handsy, love of books. 

In addition to raising awareness of the ever-endangered oasis of bibliophilic pleasures that indie bookstores represent, all profits from the online screenings of “The Bookstour” are going to the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit that provides financial assistance to bookstores and bookstore employees in need. But it’s in the conversations with the booksellers themselves that Engel says “The Bookstour” truly serves his intent.

“They’re book people,” he said, with obvious admiration, “regardless of the context or the media involved. They have a respect and love for not just writers, but designers and editors. There’s just a general warmth when you approach a bookseller.” 

You can reserve an online screening of “The Bookstour,” available to watch starting in mid-July, at the film’s website, thebookstourfilm.com. A virtual ticket is $10, with all money going to the foundation. You can read up on Engel’s work at his website (masonengel.com), and, thanks to his efforts to free himself from Amazon’s clutches, purchase his novel “2084” at your local Portland indie bookstores, like Longfellow Books and Print. 

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.


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