‘One of the Greatest Instruments of Civilization’

Jeff Deutsch, In Praise of Good Bookstores, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2022, 200pp., $19.95.

I am the kind of person who is all but unable to walk into a bookstore and leave again empty-handed. We bibliophiles tend to find our own weakness charming, but it can be dangerous—having filled one office at the small college where I teach, I claimed squatter’s rights on an empty second one, now also filled to overflowing. I sometimes enter, look at its shelves, and think sadly, “You’re going to die without ever having read most of these.”

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

While many of us enjoy a good bookstore, Deutsch has spent years thinking about what goes into making one, and how independent bookstores can survive in the age of Amazon. As director of Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago, he oversaw its decision to incorporate as the nation’s first not-for-profit bookstore committed to the mission of bookselling. (Seminary Co-op’s website includes his letter explaining the decision.) Deutsch discusses the qualities of a good bookstore under five headings: space, abundance, value, community, and time. A good bookstore, whatever its distinctive focus, is designed to promote the experience of browsing, of getting “lost in the stacks.” It helps readers navigate the incredible abundance of books available, playing a filtering role that, when well performed, wins its customers’ trust. A good bookstore’s value is not chiefly economic; rather, bookstores are cultural institutions, sharing with readers the gift of participation in a great conversation of readers and writers across space and time, the true value of which may appear in slow and unpredictable ways not readily captured by standard measures of utility. Bookstores become sites of community where readers enjoy the “companionship of books” and experience a democratic chorus of different perspectives. And they invite us into a more leisurely, dilated experience of time, “the slow time of the browse,” in contrast to the focus on speed and efficiency that necessarily drives much of life.

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