Interview with Jeff Deutsch

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Jeff Deutsch’s debut book, In Praise of Good Bookstores (Princeton University Press, 2022), is a rallying cry for the preservation of good bookstores. It’s also a love song to the communities that frequent them, the booksellers that sustain them, the act of reading itself, wonder, contemplation and childhood introductions to the transformative power of books. Deutsch is the director of the renowned Seminary Co-op Bookstores in Chicago and has worked as a bookseller for over two decades. His book details the day-to-day operations of bookstores and the economic realities that inform their lives. But, perhaps, its most charming moments are when Deutsch, in a meandering, dreamy way, takes us on a journey through his thoughts, observations and hopes, as well as those from other writers and thinkers. More than a book, Deutsch offers us a portable bookstore—a good one, nonetheless; one worthy of praise.

—Salwa Halloway

This interview was conducted this winter via email. Edits were made for clarity.

Salwa Halloway: In Praise of Good Bookstores strikes me as a celebration of thoughtful bookstores and a sort of instruction manual on how to cultivate and maintain these bookish spaces. It also reads as a meditation on various matters—personal and otherwise—that inform and emerge from “good bookstores.” I’m curious: How would you describe your book? 


Jeff Deutsch: In Praise of Good Bookstores is an amble around a bookstore, which, by representing such a discursive and diffuse engagement with an expanse of literature and philosophy, attempts to celebrate the bookstore browse itself. Frankly, and unfortunately, the book was written because we live in a time when bookstores are under threat. Perhaps the book will help make a case—a positive case, mind you—for the good bookstore in the 21st century.

SH: Several commentators have rightfully noted that In Praise of Good Bookstores is erudite. While this is true, I am especially moved by how pensive and, at times, intimate it is. How or when did you decide that you were going to write this book, and what was the experience like of bringing it into fruition?

JD: I felt it was important to speak to the ways in which these bookstores have served and built communities through books. One of the most enduring ways to build communities is to begin with the individual, rather than the institutional. Bookstores are just such an institution, and I am just such an individual.

I am very much formed by the bookstore, deepened by decades spent among books and readers. These reflections then create a sense of intimacy and, perhaps, erudition, as I am depicting my interior imaginative landscape, which is lined with phrases, ideas, and passages from a certain type of ruminative literature.

SH: It is undoubtedly a work of scholarship, one that makes use of several sources that consider not only bookselling, but also literature, religion, architecture, and other topics. What was your research process like?

JD: Many of the references throughout the book are from my personal canonical authors. So, in some sense, the research has been happening for decades. Like most readers I am quite catholic in my tastes and I'm curious about many disciplines and authors, so it's only natural that the references would be diverse and idiosyncratic. That said, they have a sort of integrity, if only by dint of my sensibility. In this way, perhaps, it resembles a bookstore’s collection.

SH: With all its references and quotes, In Praise of Good Bookstores certainly mimics the experience of “browsing the stacks.” That is, the book often exposes the reader to many different voices, ideas and texts, as a well-designed, well-curated bookstore might. Readers may even find themselves submitting to “the slow time of the browse,” when they are invited to contemplate the push or pull of a variety of books—or, in this case, passages and ideas. Do you mind talking a bit about the construction of your book?

JD: The book is structured in five sections: space, abundance, value, community, and time. In the introduction, I state that, in the 21st century, no reader needs a bookstore to buy books, and wonder if that means that bookstores are no longer necessary. I propose an answer: the product of the bookstore in the 21st century is the browsing experience and the community created by a physical space for books. I then use my nearly 30 years of bookselling and the enthusiasm, honed on behalf of single books, to bring to bear enthusiasm on behalf of the bookstore itself.

The book, as you point out, attempts to replicate the browsing experience, whereby we wandered the stacks, engage a conversation, pull a book off the shelf and note a particularly nice line or a particularly pertinent passage or, perhaps, a counterintuitive note that helps us see finer grains and textures of what we thought we already understood.

On a related note, I am very interested in the paradoxes of the good bookstore and the reading experience, and I think there are some parallel paradoxes implicit in writing that I was cognizant of as I was composing the book. When we are browsing a good bookstore or reading a good book, it feels like it is ours alone and, simultaneously, unowned; like we are in solitude in community; our attention is both diffused and focused; and that time dilates and contracts simultaneously. My hope is that these paradoxes are apparent to the reader—and that they are pleasing.

SH: You mention that “a good bookstore must develop its filters and selections, and thus its character.” A strong piece of scholarship must also do the same. How did you decide which authors and texts to include in In Praise of Good Bookstores?

JD: My choices on authors and texts were idiosyncratic and unscientific. They followed my interests and my curiosity. So much of the work of writing happens over years of developing and trusting one's sensibility. Perhaps we spend way too much time reading books that we should, as opposed to books to which we're attracted. I am not a professional reader, but a professional enthusiast. One of the joys of being a common reader is that one can follow their fancy wherever it takes them. In a bookstore, that enthusiasm is omnidirectional.

So many of my favorite books came to me as discoveries in the browse, but also as recommendations from fellow booksellers, or from customers, authors, and publisher representatives. There is a shared enthusiasm in bookstores. I feel very lucky to have had this daily experience of sharing treasures and delights.

SH: As the title explicitly states, this is a book about “good bookstores”—spaces that are invested in the art of bookselling and the cultivation of wonder and contemplation. Do you believe that the “good bookstore” is a fixed concept, or can it differ in relation to place, historical events, etc.?

JD: That is an astute question. What I mean by a good bookstore (capital G capital B) is a store that is deliberately supporting the stocking and selling of serious and enduring books, including those meant for small audiences. There are many great bookstores that are also good bookstores, and there really are no bad bookstores per se. But the ideal to which I am gesturing, which is not much different from the good society or the good life as the philosophers would have it is a platonic ideal of what these spaces could be, if we built them as we will, not as we must. In this way, yes, it is a fixed concept.

SH: You are currently the director of the ever-cherished Seminary Co-op Bookstores in Chicago. You have also worked as a bookseller now for over two decades. Has your conception of “good bookstores” changed throughout your career?

JD: Absolutely! I came up through Barnes and Noble in the 90s and then worked in large campus bookstores, first at Berkeley and then at Stanford, in the aughts and early teens. It wasn't until I took the helm of the Seminary Co-op that I recognized just how diluted those stores were. I then wondered if perhaps there was a way to run the ideal of a bookstore without diluting the very thing that makes these bookstores so valuable. Look, it's a long shot that a store like the Seminary Co-op will survive. But if we're going to survive—and, I assure you, I have significant hope that we will, in no small part because we should—I would prefer to survive embodying our ideals and striving to become the best version of the institution, rather than die because we have compromised what makes the stores so great. After all, it was even less likely that a store like this could ever be built, and yet, here we are!

SH: In In Praise of Good Bookstores, you delineate the conditions that are required of a “good bookstore.” These include a space that is suitable for browsing, as well as booksellers devoted to the “weeding, cultivation, and assemblage” of stock, who furthermore can help construct and partake in a community of serious readers. Of course, for whatever reasons, not all bookstores succeed at meeting these criteria. Can a bookstore be valuable, even if it falls short of “good”?

JD: I think that bookstores almost universally improve their communities. The presence of books, regardless of their provenance or discipline, is its own value. I can take my own experience as an example: I grew up around Orthodox Jewish books whose contents I had little to no interest in. I know first hand that arguing with a collection is at least as valuable as embracing one. The presence of books, and the habits that readers maintain as they engage their libraries, were very formative to me and helped me build my own practice of reading, assembling, collecting, and enthusing on behalf of books in my community. I'd be hard-pressed to think of a bookstore that doesn't, at minimum, serve this function. That said, most do so much more, and what falls outside of the good-bookstore designation for me is this financial imperative to sell other things. By that standard, most bookstores are unable to function as good bookstores, though they may be great bookstores, and of tremendous value to their community. This is not the fault of the bookseller. We didn't fail in this received bookstore model; the model failed us.

SH: Thinking about the reception of your book, as well as the speaking engagements you’ve participated in here in America, Europe and India, is there anything in particular that makes you feel optimistic about the future of bookselling?

JD: I am very optimistic about the future of bookselling in no small part because my book tour has been something of a revival. I meant it as a re-enchantment project. I realize now that, for so many of us, the enchantment hadn't faded. And for others, it didn’t take much to rekindle their sense of wonder and delight. Those legion bookstore enthusiasts are all honorary booksellers now. We are imploring them to create excitement in their communities on behalf of the work of good bookselling.

SH: Is there a relationship between bookselling and writing? In what ways did your experience as a bookseller, and as someone invested in the art of bookselling, inform your writing, and vice versa?

JD: Of the many qualities that make a great bookseller, enthusiasm is the one to which I gravitate most naturally—specifically, enthusiasm for books and bookstores. My impulse to say, “Read this!” and crack open the book to give the patron a taste of what they might find if they bought the book—a bookseller’s impulse—is evident in every chapter.

One of the most gratifying bits of feedback I hear from readers is that they developed a reading list out of the bibliography of the book, and made a point of purchasing the books from a local bookstore. Here is where the bookseller and the writer become one.

SH: How do you cultivate and assert your voice as a writer, when, as a bookseller, you are constantly engaging with all these impressive literary voices?

JD: Books are attempts. They try to answer an aesthetic or literary question. The more one reads, the more one will recognize the vast multiplicity of accurate answers to the question of what a book might accomplish.

And remember, these are humble attempts. Most books sell fewer than 1,000 copies—and, to some of us, the heterodoxy of the reader is to be celebrated – so the task of the author is in finding a few hundred readers. I think some mix of candor, vulnerability, and style will carry us most of the way.

SH: What do you hope the future holds for you, both as a writer and as a bookseller?

JD: My primary focus is on the future of the Seminary Co-op, which, as the first not-for-profit bookstore in the country whose mission is bookselling, will require significant fundraising in the next few years. I hope my book makes a compelling case for alternative models of bookstores funding, including our not-for-profit.

I have been working on a collection of essays built around secularized religious concepts—mostly Jewish—including idolatry, exile, covenants, and prophets. While I remain an apostate, my Orthodox Jewish childhood has left me with a tendency toward reverence. And apostates either tacitly or explicitly argue that hundreds or thousands of years’ worth of ethical wisdom should be replaced with something else. I’m interested in understanding my own heretical perspective, especially in light of the vestiges, or remnants, of the Judaism I left behind.