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'One of the Greatest Instruments of Civilization'
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‘One of the Greatest Instruments of Civilization’

A review of 'In Praise of Good Bookstores.'

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.

Those who love good books and good bookstores are likely to enjoy Deutsch’s paean to them and will frequently find themselves nodding in agreement at his observations. Those who do not are unlikely to be persuaded by him, if they even bother reading his book. But perhaps they are not his audience. (He admits, on the book’s last page, that he writes “as a bookstore enthusiast.”) Rather than an effort to convert those indifferent to a bookstore’s charms, In Praise of Good Bookstores is a call to arms for the rest of us to think carefully, before it is too late, about how to sustain a cultural space for encounters with, over, and among books, at a time when the number of independent bookstores has been plummeting dramatically and the ones that remain find it increasingly difficult to make a profit. I would have liked to hear more, in fact, about the experience of turning Seminary Co-op into a non-profit. Deutsch is surprisingly reticent about this. What have been the special challenges faced in going non-profit? Has the experience in the first years since that decision was made been encouraging? Is he optimistic about the future? Is this a model that could be readily replicated, and what are its preconditions for success? Deutsch’s book is heavy on bibliophilic citations, at times almost a kind of Bartlett’s Quotations for book lovers, but it is weaker on linear argument. Perhaps he did not want to suggest that his own store’s solution is the only way forward, but given his rich experience, one wishes Deutsch had written more about questions 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 struck in particular by how much Deutsch’s description of a bookstore ends up sounding like a liberal arts college. Leisure for the pursuit of truth in conversation with others, both fellow students and faculty, including those who speak to us from the past in their books, is the distinctive mark of a liberal arts college. Similarly, in describing the kind of community a good bookstore enables, Deutsch speaks of the “dialogue with scores of authors living or dead who might have something to say about the topic at hand.” He compares the bookstore to a university and its library, claiming that the former is more democratic than the latter, because it is open to anyone who wishes to enter and “join the honorable company of scholars, artists, and thinkers … regardless of their pedigree or specialty.” The bookstore is a place for both “explicit and tacit public conversation,” a kind of civic institution. He even compares the bookstore at one point to Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, founded to promote “the unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge” and to support “study for its own sake, regardless of utility.”

Even allowing for a certain hyperbole, one wonders whether Deutsch is here gesturing toward potential new roles that bookstores might play in the years to come. For some time now, Americans have been increasingly skeptical of higher education. This is partly because of its high cost, partly because of doubts about whether students in fact receive a real education at many of our institutions of higher learning. Recently, the COVID pandemic has shown us all new possibilities for reaching broad audiences online for lectures, readings, book groups, and the like. It is only a matter of time before people develop ways to credential these alternative educational experiences. Could the bookstore become one of our new sites of liberal learning, hosting its own discussions, talks, and even classes? Deutsch himself might resist this, squarely focused as he is on the bookstore’s core mission of bookselling. But his musings prompt one to speculate about such possibilities.

Three cheers, then, for Jeff Deutsch and his colleagues who work to sustain, for the rest of us, good bookstores. In the words of Christopher Morley, from one of the book’s epigrams, they are the custodians of “one of the greatest instruments of civilization.” Thanks to them, I may yet need a third office.

Peter C. Meilaender is professor of political science and dean of religion, humanities, and global studies at Houghton University.