The Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago is among the most venerated in the world, so it's fitting that its director, Jeff Deutsch, has written a book attempting to define what makes a successful bookseller.
It's a vital task, especially since, as Deutsch points out, "there is no good business model in the book industry" — at least, not the kind that aims to "support books whose publication is driven by cultural and literary value rather than media attention and rapid sales." Books must exist, but their existence cannot be predicated on high profit margins.
Deutsch writes passionately and eruditely about the value of literature, the community it can engender, and the patience required to sell books with integrity, but "In Praise of Good Bookstores" is more than a mere paean to independent brick-and-mortar shops. Deutsch also presents models for their continued survival.
One such example is the kollel, the institutions in which Jewish scholars are provided financial support to study rabbinic literature like the Talmud, "a model whereby some community members make their daily work their regular concern so that other community members might make the study of Torah their regular work."
The other model is the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, in which scholars are allowed, according to its founder Abraham Flexner, the "unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge."
Another model is the Seminary Co-op itself: In 2019, it became the first not-for-profit bookstore. Deutsch cites Lewis Hyde's distinction between "worth" and "value" as an important one in the realm of books: "A commodity has value and a gift does not," Hyde wrote in his influential work "The Gift." "A gift has worth."
Bookstores are expected to function within an economic system that prizes commodities over gifts, so perhaps nonprofit status is a way to ensure that not only could such a place continue to serve its community but also that it can do so without depending on flashy titles or sidelines (non-book items that are also sold at bookstores and which are often their only profitable merchandise).
Deutsch has a knack for aphorisms, as in, "The chef's wisdom: time itself is an ingredient," and "There is something to glean of the totality of human experience in a space comprising its varieties."
A proclivity for succinct wisdom makes sense for Deutsch, who throughout his book quotes writers like Paul Valéry, Joseph Joubert and Yoshido Kenkō, who are all known for their aphorisms. These aren't the only sources he cites, borrows from and quotes; he incorporates a diverse selection of writers. To name a few: Eve Ewing, Francis Bacon, Italo Calvino, Cicero, S.R. Ranganathan and Hanif Abdurraqib.
Deutsch too often relies on quotations from these various authors and thinkers to make his points, which can be slightly irksome because of the exposition required to introduce them all. Moreover, Deutsch's own skills as a stylist are stunted by the constant interruptions.
Then again, perhaps a book celebrating bookstores ought to be just like the institutions it praises: stuffed to the brim with voices.
Jonathan Russell Clark is the author of "An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom" and the forthcoming "Skateboard."
In Praise of Good Bookstores
By: Jeff Deutsch.
Publisher: Princeton University Press, 208 pages. $19.95.