In the final pages of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the narrator, reflecting on the book’s heroine, Dorothea Brooke, wrote that “the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive,” and that “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts.” In celebrating good bookstores, I found myself wondering if what is true of the effect of people on those around them might also be true of the effects of institutions on those around them.
The Seminary Co-op Bookstore, in Chicago, is one of our country’s finest bookshops, and among its best-kept secrets. Its focus on books published by academic and small presses, on otherwise under-represented authors, and on backlist titles (books published more than two years prior) isn’t unique, but it is rare.
What is unique is the patience with which the store’s buyers churn the collection. In an average independent bookstore, books sit on the shelves for 132 days, waiting to be discovered. At the Co-op, books are given considerably more time to ripen: on average, 280 days. The effect of this patience on the composition of the stacks is discernible.
For more than 60 years now, the Seminary Co-op has been modestly and quietly doing its work. While it has claimed many historic actors among its membership—including Gwendolyn Brooks, Michelle and Barack Obama, Susan Sontag, Sara Paretsky, Sandra Cisneros, and Eve L. Ewing, to name a few—it was mostly patronized and supported by tens of thousands of ordinary people. And the bookstore, with its perhaps anachronistic vision, has had an outsize effect on those who have availed themselves of the experience of browsing its stacks.
Our age doesn’t favor the modest—bookstores need advocates. We advocates don’t need to be prideful or loud, but, in order to ensure the survival of good bookstores in the 21st century, we need to make a convincing argument on behalf of these quiet institutions. Why should a store such as the Seminary Co-op, or San Francisco’s City Lights, or Detroit’s Source Booksellers exist? Spend an hour in the stacks and the answer will be self-evident: the fact of their existence is the best argument on their behalf.
If we begin convinced of the worth of a good bookstore, we can then consider models to support what is best in them. In late 2019, in recognition that the retail model of bookselling was an inherited and ill-fitting one, the Seminary Co-op became the first and only not-for-profit bookstore whose mission is bookselling. While it sells books, it is not financing the store’s work through retail sales. Selling books actually costs them!
And while they are booksellers first, their product, if you will, is the browsing experience, and the community created in the physical space, not the books themselves. Perhaps this subtle but significant shift might help bookstores realize their higher aspirations.
Jeff Deutsch is the director of Chicago’s Seminary Co-op Bookstore and the author of In Praise of Good Bookstores, out now from Princeton University Press