Jeff Deutsch is the director of the storied Seminary Co-op Bookstores in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, which in 2019 became the first not-for-profit bookstore in the country. Over the course of his nearly lifelong career as a bookseller, Jeff came to see the importance of forming and articulating new models to support bookstores as vital community institutions. He’s now combined his wide-ranging intellectual and literary passions with the urgency of his commitment to new cultural and economic models for bookselling in his new book, In Praise of Good Bookstores, just out from Princeton University Press.
I have been friends with Jeff for several years now, during which we have spent many hours talking about our shared interests in religious thought and modern poetry. I sat down with Jeff ahead of the release of his book to try to recreate one such conversation, in which we discussed the influence of Jeff’s Orthodox Jewish upbringing on his work, the pleasures and pitfalls of the human drive toward classification and the importance of cultivating enthusiasm.
Sam Gee: When did you know that you wanted to be a bookseller?
Jeff Deutsch: There are very few people, if anyone, who want to be booksellers as a career—which is part of what we’re trying to change, actually. I knew that I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I felt totally alienated from everything in the world, except for books and nature, and was fairly confident that I wanted to do something in the presence of one or the other. And it seemed more likely that I’d be able to do something in books.
I started working as a library page as a teenager. And then mostly just found places to hide and read. I shelved very quickly, and then sat around and read—I was not a good employee. And then I started in bookstores when I was nineteen. And I was able to pay the rent. I didn’t really think about it as a career until I had been in it for five years and couldn’t really imagine doing anything else.
The first time I realized it was a calling—to use an overused word, but it’s true—was when I got to the UC Berkeley bookstore in 2006 and recognized how it wasn’t just about the presence of books and readers, and sharing enthusiasm and selling books, but it was actually about building and serving community. And that really changed my way of thinking about the work.
I will also say, when I started in bookselling it was eight months after I first went to the Seminary Co-op in the basement—this was 1994. And the Co-op itself was a tremendous inspiration for me in terms of imagining what a bookstore could be. Anywhere I went, throughout my career, I had that vision of that ideal.
SG: At the beginning of the book, you write that “We don’t need another lamentation of the state of bookselling in our time.” Why was it important for you to focus less on critique and more on what you call “celebration”?
JD: Partly I think there’s enough lamentation. And I think lamentation is important—I mean, there is something at stake, we are going to lose something. And we’ve already lost quite a bit. But my disposition is not one of lamentation. Part of the impetus for writing the book came from a few lines by Whitman: “I and mine do not convince by arguments, similes, rhymes, / We convince by our presence.” The Co-op is the best argument on behalf of the Co-op and bookstores and it convinces by its presence. But what happens if you’re not able to visit? What happens if—like right now—we have half of our inventory because of COVID. And so I wanted to try to represent in whatever way possible the experience of being in that bookstore and creating a literary version of it that would hopefully convince by its presence.
I’m not convinced by moralizing, I’m not convinced by “Amazon is terrible and Netflix is terrible and you should all read more, because movies are stupid.” I don’t believe any of that anyway, and even if I did, it’s not persuasive. We live a completely meaningful life without ever reading a book, full stop. You don’t need books to live a meaningful life. And yet, many people will live a more enhanced life if they read even just a couple more books. And some won’t—I mean, it’s not for everyone. So the work became articulating the pleasures and the purpose and meaning of these spaces, and hopefully doing it in a somewhat entertaining way.
I think that one of the key qualities of any bookseller, certainly a great bookseller, is enthusiasm. And so it’s not lamentation—we don’t lament the state of the world, we’re enthusiastic about the state of books, or particular books, and share that enthusiasm. And so why wouldn’t we use that? That’s all I know. I’ve been a bookseller my whole life.
SG: What is enthusiasm? This was actually going to be my next question!
JD: Was it really? Do you want to be more specific or do you want me to riff?
SG: I want you to riff.
JD: I’m going to get at it slant, I think. Most people in academia, in publishing, in bookselling, in libraries, get into the work because they had experiences with books that moved them so deeply, that gave them such meaning and purpose, that spoke so deeply to who they are in the world, how they get through the world. And they want to privilege that above all—I’m one of those people. Most of the people I know are those people. And yet, when I go out into the world, I am shocked by how few people read at all, or read very much. I want to share the good news. That’s enthusiasm, it’s sharing the good news.
What happens for so many in these professions is that their enthusiasm is just wrung out of them. Partly out of economic necessity, partly because of professionalization and specialization, even though very few people are passionate about being specialists. Most of us are passionate about following our fancy.
And so, what is enthusiasm? Look, the world is a dark place, there’s a lot of suffering, and for anyone who has a glimpse of something positive, and has any tendency toward buoyancy and joy, and gratitude, and awe and the appreciation that comes with all that—I wouldn’t say it’s their responsibility to share it with the world, but why wouldn’t you? It’s just contagious. And I have been the recipient of that. You know, one of the things about working in a bookstore that’s wonderful is that for the most part, people go to the bookstore as a place to contemplate, relax, do something enjoyable. So I’ve had the privilege of spending almost thirty years now around people who just show up all day with great energy and great enthusiasm and want you to read this or read that or share their ideas. And it’s just the most vibrant and buoyant environment. I remember when I first moved to Chicago in 2014, someone said, “Ah, you’ve got that California buoyancy in you, wait till you get to a Chicago winter.” And sure enough, I’m eight years in now and the Chicago winters don’t defeat the buoyancy that comes out of being in that store.
SG: You described the way that the university can kill enthusiasm, and in the book you describe the bookstore as sort of a haven for the life of the mind outside of what you call “institutions of learning.” So what would you say is the importance of cultivating bookish spaces outside of the academy, or perhaps even outside of yeshivas or seminaries, etc.?
JD: It’s critically important. I mean, this is the work of being human, right? One of the things that I love about bookstores in general, and our store in particular, serving the South Side of Chicago in particular—and not the University of Chicago, and not Hyde Park, but the South Side of Chicago—is that it’s completely democratic. Obviously there are financial limits to what you can buy. But our product, unequivocally, is not the book; it’s the browsing experience. So anybody can come in and browse. In the book I share a little bit of my own financial history, of the kind of books I could or could not afford growing up. But I was always comfortable going into bookstores and browsing and seeing what was out there. And I hear from authors now who grew up coming to these stores and are from the South Side who came in and realized there’s this whole world of books. And there are no barriers to entry, whether it’s the cultural barrier of the yeshiva or the financial barrier (or others) of the university.
But I think the thing about the university is that there’s this very unfortunate notion that education is terminal and that there are institutions that certify us as educated. And when we’re done, we’re done. We can go out into the world and be our educated selves and spend most of our lives not educating ourselves, but having been stamped as educated when we were 23 or 27, or 35 or 45. I think that anyone who is committed to becoming learned, they understand that this is not the case. Not only is there no end to it, it’s also an end in itself. One of the great joys of being human is to exhibit curiosity, to learn, to teach, to evolve, and I think we need it desperately, in our communities and our civic spaces.
SG: So you see the bookstore, at least potentially, as a sort of a democratic alternative to the university?
JD: It’s certainly a complement. And for many, it’s a great complement. They’re not mutually exclusive. But I start with the bookstore, and then everything else is an alternative to or complement to that. The book is in praise of bookstores and a celebration of bookstores, but I also love and I go to libraries all the time, and I love other bookstores. I love used bookstores the most actually, but I even love decent bookstores, and often I love bad bookstores. There are very few bookstores that I don’t have a good experience in. The books section of a Salvation Army is always a joy for me, or any thrift store. I want it all. And you know, cultural organizations are great that do lectures, the Chicago Humanities Festival and Seattle Arts and Lectures and places like that are amazing. And book festivals are great. Let’s just have it all.
How many beer festivals and food festivals do we have in Chicago? And then how many book festivals do we have? We have a handful of book festivals in Chicago. And then there are a half a dozen beer and food festivals every day in the summer. Which is great. Who doesn’t love that? But there’s room, there’s room.
SG: One of my favorite parts of the book is your classifications of types of bookstore browsers, and by extension of readers. But you also talk about how a large part of booksellers’ work is classification. You mention the Sumerian idea that the librarian (or in this case bookseller) is the “ordainer of the universe” through their work of classification. Why do you think there is such a human pleasure in classification? Why are we all so drawn to these classifications?
JD: Most books are completely unclassifiable. That quote is from Alberto Manguel, who says, “Whatever classifications have been chosen, every library tyrannizes the act of reading, and forces the reader—the curious reader, the alert reader—to rescue the book from the category to which it has been condemned.” And I agree with that; the books that I love are completely unclassifiable.
But classification is critical, because fundamentally what is our work? It is matching a reader to a book and helping readers discover the books that they’re looking for. And there are ten thousand ways to do that. And in my personal library, I shift around how I categorize things, not because I want to find them—I know the books—but because I want to think about them differently. After years of having straight alphabetical sorting in my personal library in the poetry section, I began organizing by time and place because I wanted the Russian modernists together, or the Romantics together, or South Side poets who all talk to each other together. And it was a revelation. And I did that for a few years, and then I moved it back—and that was a revelation. I’m a fan of rearranging the furniture in my house and I’m a fan of rearranging the furniture on my bookcases. It’s about discovery.
SG: So what changes when you reclassify something? When you shift, either in the bookstore or your personal library, the way that you group your books together?
JD: There’s a great Borges story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” where Pierre Menard writes Don Quixote, word for word, copies it out word for word. And it’s a completely different book from Cervantes’s Quixote because Pierre Menard wrote it. And it’s a similar thing here. A book changes when it is placed somewhere else, depending on what it is placed next to.
I have my mother’s mass-market copies of James Baldwin’s fiction and nonfiction. And now there’s a new edition of Baldwin’s nonfiction. And to see that book with my mother’s volumes of Baldwins is a special thing—it changes the book, it changes how I think about the book.
And then there are also moods; books are so much about time and place, if you’re open to them. How many books have you tried to read and couldn’t get through, and then you open them up five years later, and you just happen to be ripe? Sometimes it’s just rotten, or, maybe you’re rotten. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is the book that’s meant the most to me in my life. I read it when I was eighteen for the first time out in the desert. And a year later, I was trying to rekindle the magic and I couldn’t, I couldn’t find it—it felt dead. It’s one of the few times in my life where it didn’t hit. So the moods really matter. And there’s something about the shuffling that just helps—you start seeing things that were already there differently.
SG: You note that in our culture, unlike the Judaism in which you grew up, there is no consensus canon of a few sacred texts; readers create their own personal canons. Should we miss something about the kind of community made possible by possessing a small self-contained canon?
JD: I think it’s an illusion that we’ve ever had a canon. Certain people might have thought they had a canon. I think particular communities, though, can and should build their own—you know, one-book-one-city. One or two books that are really important to understand this place. For me, it would be Divine Days by Leon Forrest and Blacks by Gwendolyn Brooks; anyone who comes to Chicago should read those two books and think about the city.
I remember once I was with a friend at the Morgan Library in New York, where they had some beautiful Goethes, and I was enthusing about Goethe. I said, “I just cannot escape this guy, it’s like he keeps coming back into my life. And he’s meant so much to me.” And she said, “Well, of course, he’s part of our fabric.” But I thought to myself, “He’s not part of my fabric!” German literature is not part of my fabric, actually—I’m drawn to it because it’s so alien to me. My “canon” is the Talmud and the Torah. This is not my canon, actually. And how cool! How great, then, that I happen to read Goethe. Should everyone read Goethe? No. Should everyone read the Talmud? No. I mean, there’s so much out there. Now, I think we should have places that support all of these things. And that’s why the bookstore, to me, is so powerful. It’s not trying to force a conversation on a broad level. It strikes me, as a reader, that anything you told me we all needed to read, I would have run away from and found something else.
SG: But do you think that the idea that we’re all kind of in this process of creating our own canons in itself is something that unites us?
JD: Ah! That, I do!
SG: Yeah, of course not everyone’s doing it, but…
JD: No, there’s a community of people who do that. Just like there’s a community of people who get any instrument they can find and figure out how to play it, and then like to play it together. They don’t have to play the same instruments. And the commitment to books, and commitment to reading, the commitment to talking about books, the commitment to writing about books and commenting on them, and celebrating them, is a community; and that is my community.
In the book, I quote the writer Gabriel Zaid, who writes, “Culture is a conversation without a center. The true universal culture isn’t the utopian Global Village gathered around a microphone; it is the Babel-like multitude of villages, each the center of the world. The universality accessible to us is the finite, limited, concrete universality of diverse and disparate conversations.” I really love that idea.
SG: To me, this question is related to another: What makes a text sacred?
JD: On some level, nothing. I mean, I came up in a world where texts are sacred, and you kiss a book, and so I have these habits. And honestly, it’s slightly tongue-in-cheek that I think they’re sacred. And then it’s not tongue-in-cheek at all, I am completely earnest and they’re totally sacred.
For me, it’s the books that help me to live a better life. And often that’s just aesthetically, spine-tingling lines and books that are just sublime, awe-inspiring. Or books that show us what it means to be human and that really capture truth, the true way people think or talk. What is sacred about the books in my own canon, to me, is what is sacred in a sacred text in a religion—it’s returning to it, using it in times of strength and of weakness to fortify the spirit and to focus the energies on what matters in the world. And not settle for mediocre or even good gods, but to demand, to really seek the highest pleasures.
SG: One of the most moving parts of the book for me is your invocation of the sort of dialogues that readers have with their favorite authors from the past. “The reader,” you write, “has the sole power of revivifying the writer, who is a shade at rest, capable of being dislodged.” We often talk now about what we owe to future generations, but do we owe anything to the dead?
JD: I find it really hubristic to think that we live in the wisest age, that we’re the first to be human, that we should ignore anyone who gave us a record of how they were or what it meant to them to be alive in their moment. All the most important things are shrouded in mystery. But I’m not sure we owe anything to the past—because anything I read has to attract me and bring me joy or wisdom.
SG: There was a projected chapter on the bookstore and religion that didn’t make the final cut. Do you have any interest in sharing a little bit of what you were going to say in that chapter?
JD: I have a religious background. I’m not religious now, but I love religious language. And I learned to think with religious language. And one of the things that struck me specifically at the Seminary Co-op was how frequently the community used religious language. Words like “acolytes,” and “calling,” and “mission,” and “sanctuary,” and “seminary,” and “communion,” and “tribe,” and “devotee,” and “penitent,” and “faithful,” and “syncretism,” and “preacher,” and “proselyte,” “gospel,” and “Mecca,” and “canon,” and “holy,” and “sacred,” all these words, kept coming up from people in my conversations and in my own head. This is similar to the earlier question of “what makes a book sacred?” Well, what makes a church sacred, what makes a building sacred? What makes a community holy? Those are all really interesting questions. Going to any holy site, especially ancient holy sites, just the years and years and years and centuries of pilgrims and acolytes and devotees going there and praying alone might make it holy. So, sixty years in, how many people have come to this place, the Seminary Co-op with that reverence? That seems to me enough to make it a site of worship.
I certainly have—I’d say I have the zeal of the convert, but I’m not a convert, I just have the zeal, whatever the height of zeal is. The superlatives that we use to talk about religion, “the highest heights” and “the holy of holies,” I think in my life are best applied to book spaces and nature. And they’re both at risk.
Photo credit: Copyright Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing, 2013; courtesy of the Seminary Co-op