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Review of Jeff Deutsch, “In Praise of Good Bookstores”

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It seems that I have spent a quarter of a century without understanding something very important, even definitive, about Amazon.com. Founder Jeff Bezos didn’t start the site out of a particular interest in books, only to see it grow and branch out into what it is today, the largest store in the world. That was how things sounded to a client, but an interview he gave in 1997 reveals otherwise. What rather caught his attention was the fact that, as he put it, “there are by far more articles in the book category than there are articles in any other category”.

Create an online sales platform that can handle this kind of inventory, and the world is yours. Rarely a profitable business anyway, the bookstore was indeed a way to attract attention and build the brand. And that explains a lot. Do a search for “oyster” on Amazon — being careful to limit the search to the books department — and you’ll be offered not only biological studies, recipe collections and occasional aphrodisiac reference books, but also a scaler. clams and oyster knives. set with a stainless steel seafood opener, wooden handle and gloves (at a surprisingly low price), plus oyster-coloured paint cans and planners with cover graphics inspired by the Blue Öyster Cult band . To be fair, most results are actually books of some kind, though their relevance to the search term is often tenuous at best. The publisher’s description of a subtitled book A Dark Mafia Romance gives no reason to expect substantial oyster-related content.

Looking for books in the middle such mercenary mayhem is the exact opposite of the sailing experience that Jeff Deutsch celebrates in Tribute to good bookstores, published by Princeton University Press. Deutsch is the director of Chicago’s famous Seminary Co-op bookstore (as everyone calls it, although the official name is Seminary Co-op Bookstores Inc.), which somehow survived the onslaught of online retail, despite stocking a long list of literary and scholarly titles that sell slowly and often in minute quantities. “Of the 28,000 titles sold by the Seminary Co-op in 2019,” Deutsch writes, “nearly 17,000 were single copies. In other words, each of those 17,000 books was searched for by a unique reader.

To praise is not a memoir of the author’s professional life, nor a history of the cooperative (founded in 1961) as an institution. And while there are moments of philippiness against Amazon, most of Deutsch’s anger is directed toward more productive uses. What is done is done. The question is how to preserve and cultivate all the tracts of rainforest that Bezos did not burn.

This requires more than praise for good bookstores. Without pushing the rainforest analogy too far, I see Deutsch as a kind of ecologist, defining and defending the ecosystem necessary to maintain the well-being of people for whom reading is a vital necessity – a way of to be in the world. “Although bookstores are no longer the most efficient or, perhaps, the most cost-effective method of obtaining specific books,” he writes, “selling books has always been one of the least interesting services provided by bookstores. The value is, and always has been, at least in good, serious bookshops, in the experience of being among the books – an experience offered to anyone who enters the space with curiosity and time.

In other words, bookstores enable (and at best encourage) browsing. The word implies a kind of unstructured use of time that should not be confused with recklessness or lack of consequence. He writes, “While an algorithm may suggest a book we’re likely to enjoy based on who we’ve been, or what an advertiser might want us to believe we want, there’s no substitute for hard work. to help us discover who we are or who we could become.

It is the vocation of the bookseller (to use this term as a seminarian would do) to establish the optimal conditions for coming across a book that the reader is not necessarily looking for. Serendipity may not be willed, but a dedicated bookseller helps it through “filtration, selection, assembly and enthusiasm,” as Deutsch puts it.

The author calls the staff of good stores “book professionals” – a category that would also include publishers and librarians, and perhaps even reviewers. Book professionals are, he says, “readers,” which, in the case of running a bookstore, requires a particular social finesse: the ability to let browsers do their own exploration without interruption while by being conversational enough, when the customer wants it. this.

The skill set is rare and the precarious economic situation of bookstores discourages its cultivation. Deutsch mentions that when he started working in bookstores, in 1994, about 7,000 bookstores were operating in the United States. Amazon opened its doors the same year. In 2019, there were only 2,500 stores. (The decline wasn’t caused solely by competition from the online retailer, of course. Borders’ rise to power has sunk many local stores, and the chain’s collapse hasn’t prompted new ones to join.) arise.) The last pre-pandemic year was also when the Seminary Co-op transitioned from a customer-run cooperative to its current status as a non-profit organization, after more than two decades of operation with a significant deficit.

Which does not mean that it is now impossible to make a profit. Deutsch sums up what market forces currently require of a store: “About 20% of a bookstore’s inventory should be non-book products,” he writes. “The books that are transported must be purchased primarily from large presses that offer higher gross margins than smaller, independent, scholarly presses. Bookstores must leave books on their shelves for no longer than four months. Bookstores must pay booksellers the salary of an entry-level retail clerk.

Of course, browsing is not excluded by the all-in-one model, books and oyster shucking equipment from the brick-and-mortar bookstore. But this is an inefficient phase of the transaction, which contributes nothing to the seller’s bottom line. Deutsch advocates another way to calculate the value added by smart booksellers and insists it’s time to develop new ways to keep their doors open. Exactly how is another matter. The Seminary Co-op’s metamorphosis into a nonprofit is presumably relevant, but it’s not something he sees as a model.

“To be clear, he writes, the bookstore is not a place for everything. This is not the internet, where every idea or thought is given its space, no matter how good, hateful, or begging. The bookseller’s selections must filter quality and a certain set of standards – of course, what we exclude is as significant as what we include – that help create a discourse that is inclusive, intellectually honest and aware of the multiple ways in which materials are used in intellectual life in the broad sense.

Like clean air or clean water, conditions conducive to certain kinds of attention are easy to take for granted, until they start to wear thin.