“One of the greatest instruments of civilization”

(Photo by Elizabeth Livermore via Getty Images.)

Jeff Deutsch, Tribute to good bookstoresPrinceton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2022, 200 pages, $19.95.

I’m the kind of person who can’t walk into a bookstore and leave empty-handed. We bibliophiles tend to find our own weakness charming, but it can be dangerous – after occupying an office in the small college where I teach, I claimed the rights to squat on a second void, now also filled to crack. I sometimes walk in, look at his shelves and sadly think, “You’re going to die without ever reading most of these.”

Now I learn that my addiction has its fixers, deliberately luring me from one literary peak to the next. In its new slender volume Tribute to good bookstores, Jeff Deutsch describes the characteristics that make good bookstores so irresistible. He observes, for example – a point which obviously seems correct in retrospect, but which I had never thought of in these terms before – that the most important product sold by a bookstore is not the books themselves but rather the browsing experience. The right bookstore is designed to draw the customer deeper and deeper inside, in search of that chance discovery: the book one was looking for without even knowing it. Deutsch quotes the happy comment of Alberto Manguel (in turn quoting Aby Warburg): “The book we knew was not, in most cases, the one we needed. It was the unknown neighbor on the same shelf…” Thanks to Deutsch and his fellow booksellers, I’ve brought home quite a few of these unknown neighbors over the years.

While many of us appreciate a good bookstore, Deutsch has spent years thinking about what makes one and how independent bookstores can survive in the age of Amazon. As director of the Seminary Co-op bookstore in Chicago, he oversaw its decision to become the nation’s first nonprofit bookstore committed to the mission of selling books. (The Seminary Co-op website includes its letter explaining the decision.) Deutsch presents the qualities of a good bookstore under five headings: space, abundance, value, community, and time. A good bookstore, whatever its distinctive purpose, is designed to promote the experience of browsing, of getting “lost in the piles.” It helps readers navigate the incredible abundance of books available, acting as a filter that, when done well, earns the trust of its customers. The value of a good bookstore is not primarily economic; rather, bookstores are cultural institutions, sharing with readers the gift of participating in a great conversation of readers and writers across space and time, the true value of which may appear in slow and unpredictable ways, difficult to grasp by standard measures of utility. Bookstores become sites of community where readers enjoy the “company of books” and experience a democratic chorus of different perspectives. And they invite us into a quieter, more dilated experience of time, “the slow time of navigation”, in contrast to the emphasis on speed and efficiency that necessarily drives much of life.

Those who like good books and good bookshops will probably appreciate Deutsch’s anthem for them and often find themselves nodding their heads in agreement at his observations. Those who don’t are unlikely to be convinced by him, if they even bother to read his book. But maybe they are not his audience. (He admits, on the last page of the book, that he writes “in love with bookstores.”) Rather than an effort to convert the indifferent to the charms of a bookstore, Tribute to good bookstores is a call to arms for the rest of us to think carefully, before it is too late, about how to maintain a cultural space for encounters with, on and among books, at a time when the number number of independent bookstores has dropped dramatically and those that remain are finding it increasingly difficult to make a profit. I would have liked to know more, in fact, about the experience of transforming the Seminary Co-op into a non-profit organization. Deutsch is surprisingly reticent about this. What were the particular challenges encountered when setting up a non-profit organization? Has the experience of the first years since this decision been taken been encouraging? Is he optimistic about the future? Is this a model that could be easily replicated and what are its prerequisites for success? Deutsch’s book is full of bibliophilic citations, sometimes almost a kind of Quotes from Bartlett for book lovers, but it is weaker on the linear argument. Perhaps he didn’t mean to suggest that his own store’s solution was the only way forward, but given his wealth of experience, one wishes Deutsch had written more about issues like these.

Readers will nevertheless find much food for thought in the book’s treatment of the various qualities that go into making a good bookstore. I was particularly struck by how much Deutsch’s description of a bookstore ends up resembling a liberal arts college. Recreation for the search for truth in conversation with others, students and faculty, including those who tell us about the past in their books, is the hallmark of a liberal arts college. Similarly, in describing the kind of community a good bookstore allows, Deutsch speaks of “dialogue with dozens of authors living or dead who might have something to say about the subject at hand.” He likens the bookstore to a university and its library, saying the former is more democratic than the latter, as it is open to anyone who wishes to enter and “join the honorable company of scholars, artists, and thinkers…their pedigree or their specialty. The bookstore is a place of “explicit and tacit public conversation”, a sort of civic institution. He even compares the bookstore at one point to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, founded to promote “the unfettered pursuit of useless knowledge” and to support “study for its own sake, however useful it may be”.

Even allowing for some hyperbole, one wonders if Deutsch is pointing here to potential new roles that bookstores could play in the years to come. For some time now, Americans have become increasingly skeptical of higher education. This is partly because of its high cost, partly because of doubts about whether students are in fact getting a real education at many of our higher education institutions. Recently, the COVID pandemic has shown us all the new possibilities of reaching large audiences online for lectures, readings, reading groups, etc. It’s only a matter of time before people develop ways to validate these alternative educational experiences. Could the bookstore become one of our new liberal learning sites, hosting its own discussions, lectures and even classes? Deutsch himself could resist that, squarely focused as he is on the bookstore’s main mission, selling books. But his thoughts prompt speculation about such possibilities.

Congratulations to Jeff Deutsch and his colleagues who work to make good bookstores live for all of us. In the words of Christopher Morley, from one of the book’s epigrams, they are guardians of “one of civilization‘s greatest instruments”. Thanks to them, I may still need a third office.