Jeff Deutsch in In Praise of Good Bookstores
Do we need bookstores in the 21st century? If so, what makes it a good one? In this beautifully written book, Jeff Deutsch, the director of Chicago Seminary’s Cooperative Bookstores, one of the best bookstores in the world, pays a loving tribute to one of our most important and threatened civic institutions. It considers how qualities such as space, time, abundance, and community find expression in a good bookstore. In this conversation with editor Rob Tempio, Deutsch makes an eloquent case of the incalculable value of navigation.
Let’s start with the seemingly mundane but essential question, how did you become a bookseller?
JD: Like most career booksellers, I had no intention of becoming a bookseller. It was maybe ten years after I started working in bookstores that I looked back and realized that I was, in fact, a career bookseller.
I had never given much thought to what I would do for a career. Earning a living was important to me so I could focus on the things that mattered to me: reading, writing, and community. I was very lucky to have been a bad student and an underachiever. And I was very lucky to have my mom as a role model on how to ignore other people’s approval and live for yourself. If I hadn’t had his example, I probably would have sought a more prestigious and better paid career.
One of my main goals in starting a non-profit bookstore is to create a model for future booksellers, so they can look forward to a career that is respected (no need to be glamorous) and decent (no need to be well) remunerated.
In your opinion, what are the key ingredients of a good bookstore?
JD: A good bookseller respects the idiosyncratic tendencies of readers, while embracing the general interests of their community. It is important to strike a balance between the predictable and the unpredictable; comforting and stimulating; the dependable and the aspirational; the familiar and the surprising; and what children’s librarians call mirrors and windows. It should contain a mix of books that sell quickly and reliably, and books that sell a little slower.
I remember a friend who once said to me “libraries relax me”. It resonated, but sometimes they also make me anxious with the amount of books to choose from. In your book, do you talk about the abundance of books that readers are faced with? What role do bookstores play in helping them find their way around?
JD: Good bookstores have a sensitivity. Perhaps they are something like the flavor enhancer, or the sixth flavor, kokumi, which has been translated as “heat” or “bite”, and speaks of the “cravability” of a food. It doesn’t necessarily have its own flavor, but it enhances the flavors it is combined with. A good bookstore somehow improves the books on its shelves.
Many readers intuitively understand that a book purchased online, even from a bookstore, has a different “flavor” than one discovered while browsing. A good bookshop creates a subtle and elegant desire.
I was recently at a relatively small, but very well organized new bookstore in Frenchtown, NJ and thought if it were up to me, every town would have a bookstore like this. What role do bookstores play as cultural institutions?
JD: A small, well-organized bookstore – I’m thinking of Source Booksellers and 27and Letter Books in Detroit, Three Lives & Company in the West Village, or Point Reyes Books in Marin County, for example, can be as expansive a browsing experience as a “supermarket.” And few communities are better off without at least one good bookstore.
Books can and do provide great entertainment and great escape, and booksellers respect and welcome readers seeking such pleasures. Books can also challenge and edify us. This too is important for our culture. While most readers are looking for a good read, at the risk of sounding valuable, many of us go to bookstores in search of ourselves. It is one of the few places where one can be in silent community with others, bound by a common passion for a certain type of research and a certain lifestyle, one that privileges rumination and imagination.
You also say in your book “Good bookstores reflect their communities; exceptional bookstores both reflect and create their communities. Can you tell us about bookstores as community centers, so to speak?
JD: The book is composed of five chapters: space, abundance, value, community and time. I had a sixth chapter – on reverence – which I ended up folding in the rest. In the chapter on community, I quote Hanif Abdurraqib’s reflection on places of worship: “The gospel is, in many ways, what brings people in to receive the blessings you have to offer. »
So many Seminary Co-op customers refer to the bookstore as a sacred or holy place. They say it with a bit of mischievous irony, but I can never tell if it’s because they’re serious or just joking. In fact, even when I say it, which I often do, I don’t know if I’m being playful or pushy.
And thinking about what makes a space sacred – a place of worship – or what makes a community holy, it seems to have to do with what draws people to a certain business in a certain space. I have visited holy places around the world and, as a non-believer, I have felt what hours, years and centuries of devotees, in reverence and rest, have sanctified. After six decades of operation and hundreds of thousands of bookish pilgrims ruminating in the piles, perhaps the seminary cooperative has also become a place of worship.
Can you name some of your favorite bookstores, in no particular order or classification of course?
JD: Don’t make me choose! But if need be, here’s a partial list, at best, of some of my personal favorites… all good bookstores.
solid state books, washington dc, The table of booksOak Park, Ill., City Lights BookstoreSan Francisco, California, Moe’s booksBerkeley, California, Source BooksellersDetroit, MI, McNally Jackson, New York, NY, Women and children firstChicago, IL, Boswell Book Company, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, maze booksPrinceton, New Jersey, Harvard BookstoreCambridge, MA, Left Bank BooksSt. Louis, Missouri, Moon Palace BooksMinneapolis, Minnesota, and wild rowdinessin Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Jeff Deutsch is the director of Chicago’s Seminary Co-op Bookstores, which he helped establish in 2019 as the first nonprofit bookstore whose mission is to sell books. He lives in Chicago.