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the Complete Review
the complete review - bookselling

In Praise of Good Bookstores

Jeff Deutsch

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To purchase In Praise of Good Bookstores

Title: In Praise of Good Bookstores
Author: Jeff Deutsch
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2022
Length: 167 pages
Availability: In Praise of Good Bookstores - US
In Praise of Good Bookstores - UK
In Praise of Good Bookstores - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Princeton University Press

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Our Assessment:

B : easily makes the case for why we need good bookstores, but not enough on how to make them viable

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 13/4/2022 Mia Levitin
Forward . 22/3/2022 Steven G. Kellman
Inside Higher Ed . 29/4/2022 Scott McLemee
TLS . 3/6/2022 Oliver Balch
The Washington Post . 4/5/2022 Michael Dirda

  From the Reviews:
  • "While Deutsch's paean is charmingly erudite, one gets a sinking feeling that he is preaching to the choir. Anyone drawn to a book called In Praise of Good Bookstores is unlikely to need convincing of their value as ruminative spaces. It would have been interesting to learn more about how the Seminary Co-op, which became the first bookstore to be run as a not-for-profit in 2019, is funded, and whether it might be an applicable model to support bookstores elsewhere." - Mia Levitin, Financial Times

  • "His is a passionate plea for replacing the dominant business model that reduces books to revenue-producing commodities. (...) In a culture that fosters rampant aliteracy and homes devoid of any books, Deutsch is extolling not just good bookstores but also the vanishing world of thoughtful lives. His effort deserves praise." - Steven G. Kellman, Forward

  • "Without pushing the rain forest analogy too hard, I think of Deutsch as a kind of environmentalist, defining and defending the ecosystem required to sustain the well-being of people for whom reading is a vital necessity -- a way of being in the world." - Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Ed

  • "So what function do modern bookshops serve ? And how might they go about delivering it ? In Praise of Good Bookstores dives into these questions with brio and scholarship. (...) The only dud note concerns the trade's economic viability. The margin on books is already derisory. Add to that Deutsch's conviction that a bookshop's core attraction is a reflective browse and any prospect of profitability goes up in smoke." - Oliver Balch, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Contrary to its cover blurbs, Jeff Deutsch's In Praise of Good Bookstores may be too high-minded to appeal to any but a few readers. Not only mildly academic in tone and lacking in amusing anecdotes, Deutsch constantly dresses his prose in borrowed finery: He can't write a paragraph without quoting someone." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In Praise of Good Bookstores can seem to be a rather curious title. For one, it's hard to imagine a counter-title, in opposition -- who, after all, could possibly be against 'good bookstores' ? -- while the 'good' already implies that the subject is inherently praiseworthy. But, while a fan of bookstores in general, author Jeff Deutsch is specifically making the case for the 'good' bookstore, an establishment that isn't simply a retail outlet:

     The good bookstore sells books, but its primary product, if you will, is the browsing experience.
       Deutsch is director of the Seminary Co-op Bookstores in Chicago, and holds these up as a kind of, in many respects, bookstore-ideal. He frequently uses the Seminary Co-op Bookstore as an example, both in what it offers and how it offers it (i.e. the range and arrangement of the books), and also in discussing the actual business of bookselling.
       For Deutsch, Amazon barely rates as a 'bookseller' in any meaningful way, beyond undermining traditional bookselling by devaluing books and using them as a loss-leader -- to the detriment of the culture at large. Of course, the problem is that both Amazon and the local bookstore are retail establishments whose success and survival are dependent on shifting stock -- selling product.
       As Deutsch notes, this is unfortunate:
Our only model of bookselling, inherited from traditional retail, overvalues efficiency and neglects a wise inefficiency
       It has become common for bookstores to carry non-book items (which have a higher profit-margin); Deutsch reports the industry average is nearly twenty per cent of total inventory -- while his ideal is space devoted essentially solely to books. The Seminary Co-op lives up to the ideal -- "Books make up over 99 percent of our inventory" --, one of several factors that make it a 'good' bookstore. Others include a large, varied selection -- remarkably, he reports: "Of the 28,000 titles the Seminary Co-op sold in 2019, nearly 17,000 were single copies" -- and also (and in conjunction with it) curation, as there's a great: "difference between a storehouse of books and a carefully assembled collection".
       It's easy to share Deutsch's enthusiasm for the good bookstore-ideal he describes -- though he is certainly preaching to the choir, as it were. It's not clear that all book-buyers are looking for this experience; one suspects that many prize simple efficiency, where they can pick up the latest bestseller without the distraction of miles of obscurer fare.
       The problem, Deutsch acknowledges, is how can we have good bookstores -- how can they be run as, in some form, viable businesses (as they need to be, to survive) --, if their appeal and value lies in the browsing experience, rather than a focus on high margins (hard to realize with books) and high turnover.
       Deutsch offers a few numbers regarding the Seminary Co-op, but they only provide an incomplete picture. Some raise more questions than they answer, such as his observation that: "Our beloved collection of Loeb Classical Library titles, for instance, are all sold at a loss, though we charge list price". (How is that possible ? If selling books even at list price results in a loss, how could booksellers possibly survive ?) Still, it's interesting to learn that, for example, during an eight-year stretch in the 2010s: "the Seminary Co-op's sales grew by 27 percent, but its bottom line remained steady: an annual deficit of approximately $300,000".
       The Seminary Co-op's long-time structure -- as a "member-owned co-op [...] built to pay financial dividends to its shareholders" -- is repeatedly noted, and there's quite a bit of name-checking, of the many illustrious folk who have been members of the co-op -- but it's never made entirely clear how it worked. (Deutsch does note that it hadn't paid out dividends since the early 1990s.) The stores have now abandoned that model and are trying something entirely new:
(R)ecognizing that there was no place for us in the prevailing model of the financially sustainable bookstore, the Seminary Co-op established the model of the not-for-profit bookstore whose mission is bookselling. Rather than rely on the retail model -- buying cheap and selling dear -- our new model looks to financing from the gift economy to provide an articulation of the sort of work we are attempting.
       Many smaller publishers -- and cultural organizations in general -- are non-profits, and this is certainly an interesting model to embrace. In recent years, there have also been numerous local bookstores that have held crowdfunding campaigns of various sorts; going entirely non-profit could arguably be considered the logical next step. The specific public-interest purpose here -- the 'mission of bookselling', as Deutsch presents it in this book --, is certainly a worthy one. Still, one has to wonder how viable an alternative this is -- and how attractive for bookstores in general, beyond this case.
       Non-profit status does tie a bookstore even more closely into its community -- making it more akin to a cultural institution than a commercial enterprise -- and Deutsch argues that bookstores can and should be such parts of the community. (He also differentiates them from libraries -- an already existing non-profit institution in many communities that shares many of the features of his 'good bookstore'-ideal.)
       Deutsch argues for the books being properly valued in society, and for the need for good bookstores, to allow readers to find books, in their own good time. It's easily a convincing argument for anyone who loves books and/or reads a great deal.
       Relying extensively on literary examples and quotes to make his points, In Praise of Good Bookstores can, at times, feel too referential (if appropriately reverential). Readers probably don't need nearly so much convincing of the advantages of 'the good bookstore' -- but might have wished for more discussion of the hard numbers and how to make them add up. For now, the non-profit experiment at the Seminary Co-op is still a very new one; it will be interesting to hear how it works out.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 June 2022

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In Praise of Good Bookstores: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Jeff Deutsch is the director of the Seminary Co-op Bookstores in Chicago.

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© 2022 the complete review

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