The value of good bookstores and “the art of browsing”
Jeff Deutsch doesn’t mind if you just browse his bookstore; in fact, he wholeheartedly encourages it. In his recently published book Tribute to good bookstoresDeutsch draws on his experiences as a long-time bookseller and director of the Seminary Cooperative Libraries to establish a case for the value of bookstores – and “the art of browsing” to enhance our lives.
“Bookstores have a special way of taking us out and simultaneously bringing us back to ourselves,” Deutsch said. “They have the potential to connect us to the larger world and lead us back to more refined and thoughtful versions of ourselves.”
Since the store’s founding in 1961, the beloved Sem Co-op and the University of Chicago have created a symbiotic relationship in which ideas and books flow freely. One of the few remaining academic bookstores in the country, the co-op’s shelves overflow with scholarly and literary works from every discipline and era, with its venerated Front Table serving as “an idiosyncratic snapshot of scholarly scholarship in ‘a season”.
Deutsch’s philosophical prose, which reads like a meditative stroll through the shelves and tables of the Co-op, invokes the voices of great readers, writers and salespeople throughout history.
In 2019, Deutsch ushered in a new era when he helped establish the Sem Co-op as a non-profit organization: the first bookstore in the country to do so. This shift, Deutsch argues in his book and the following Q&A, reflects the true value of bookstores today: not as retail operations, but as cultural institutions whose lifeblood is navigation. and connection.
Where does your love of books come from?
I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community. While Jews are known as the “people of the book,” Jewish religious communities sanctify the book in ways that I continue to find inspiring. We prayed from books, recited books, gathered around books, and studied as a method of self-improvement and attachment to the divine.
What makes a good bookstore? A good bookstore?
I evaluate bookstores by the quality of the browsing and the discernment of the bookseller. And I rate booksellers on their ability to listen to and reflect their customers. And their enthusiasm! These are linked. To practice a good bookstore, you have to avoid the trap of only recommending books that you have read and liked. Our job is to learn what others like and help reflect that when we associate books with readers and readers with books.
Do you have a favorite memory of helping a book find its reader?
A few years into my tenure at the Coop, Professor Harry Davis asked me to recommend titles on friendship. Harry is one of the brightest and most idiosyncratic people I’ve ever met – someone who I think helps define the kind of boundless curiosity that characterizes UChicago’s unique intellectual journey. I recommended a few books, including the great novel by Sándor Márai Ember. Harry read it, loved it, and decided to use it in his Distinguished Fellowship program. It was incredibly rewarding.
Much of your book emphasizes the importance of navigation. In fact, the experience of reading your book is almost like flipping through a bookshelf. How can we use the art of navigation in our daily life?
Thank you for this question! Yes, my book was intended, stylistically, to replicate good bookstore reading. I wrote it for those who may not have daily access to a store like the Seminary Co-op. I was hoping to evoke the experience of browsing in a store like ours, to remind readers that, as you can see, the art of browsing is useful in our daily lives.
Many of our customers compare the bookstore to a religious institution, and I understand why: the contemplation and attention that a good bookshop evokes puts us in touch with our higher self, perhaps the best.
You say that large bookstores “reflect and create” their communities. How do Co-op bookshops ‘reflect and create’ the University community, the Hyde Park community and beyond?
The Coop was founded in 1961. We have done excellent work reflecting the culture of the University – the rigour, the sometimes antidisciplinary interdisciplinary tendency and the pursuit of knowledge for intellectual purposes, but also as an end in itself. But I would dare to say that we have also contributed to creating this culture. Would the unique intellectual culture of the University of Chicago be quite the same without the Seminary Co-op? I can’t imagine it.
What piece of co-op history would you like visitors to know about?
Marshall Sahlins and Jim Chandler separately told me about a friendly competition they had 20 years ago. When Marshall published Culture in practiceand Jim published his Laing Prize-winning England in 1819: the politics of literary culture and the case of romantic historicism, they had bet on who could stay at the head table the longest. Marshall told me he lost, but, as he told Jim, “It was only because mine sold.”