Announcing Our Fall Partner Bookseller: Chicago’s Pioneering Nonprofit: Seminary Co-op and 57th Street Books (Part Two)
Read Part One of this post here!
Seminary Co-op’s director Jeff Deutsch re-imagined its co-operative model as a registered nonprofit both to recognize the unavoidable realities of the contemporary marketplace and to update the co-op model of a bookstore built by and for its customers. The stores are registered as a nonprofit in Illinois. They are not a US tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit, because (at the moment) the US government does not recognize that the selling of things can itself be a cultural enterprise: nonprofits with bookstores have bookstores supporting another philanthropic mission. The stores’ governance is drawn from its former co-op membership and the community.
But how to survive? The Seminary Co-op bookstores seek gifts from its supporters, of course, but they are also trying to reimagine a bookstore’s role as a cultural organization. As many bookstores do, they work with local schools and teachers to provide book fairs, educational discounts, library curation, author visits, and on-site storytimes; they are also endeavoring to extend these practices into other local businesses. Would you like experienced booksellers to help curate your organization or department’s library or secure books for your community drawing on their highly informed recommendations and knowledge of discounting practices? The stores are also beginning a publishing line of overlooked classics and original reflections on book culture (an extension Prickly Paradigm Press, the feisty imprint founded by anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, devoted Co-op member who died this year) and considering ways to repurpose their extensive archive of events, podcasts, and writings.
It’s a fierce irony that just as Seminary Co-op embraced its challenging new vision the country was plunged into the pandemic and “two of the pursuits that most define our work,” as Deutsch wrote, “creating a world-class browsing experience and drawing community together over our shared love of books—are unavailable.” But, as the Co-op enters into a celebration of its sixtieth anniversary this fall with a panoply of planned events, it seems this challenge has only focused their energy. “We have manuals for this. Our stores are filled with them,” Deutsch wrote last summer. “To paraphrase Woolf, looking together unites us. We will do everything we can, within our character, to ensure that we might serve you again in person.” The Seminary Co-op began limited in-person browsing on June 12 and 57th Street Books on August 28. They are still mostly refraining from public gatherings.
The absurdity of Deutsch’s proposition—we can only save our store by embracing its character as a money-losing operation—is very much to the point. (Auden: “All chance, all love, all logic, you and I / Exist by grace of the absurd, / And without conscious artifice we die.”) Deutsch is always quick to speak respectfully of other booksellers who thrive using other models (“For-profit bookstores do the same cultural work”), and he insists that “we want to run this ‘foolish’ business with intelligence and savvy.” It is the stores’ uniquely erudite community that undergirds this quixotic, illustrative position. He is acting, he says, as much as an advocate for bookselling itself—“books have their own difficulty justifying themselves; it follows that bookstores would be equally frustrated by the call to account for their tremendous expenditure of effort”—as a bookseller. His appeals to the bookstores’ community are as much an appeal to engage in this advocacy—taking shared responsibility for the stores’ commitment to spreading ideas and sheltering sustained reflection—as an appeal for funds. This is what makes his work, with its daunting obstacles, hopeful: “I am energized by the element of advocacy the work now includes,” he told an interviewer.
At its most elevated, Deutsch’s defense of the “cultural good” of bookselling becomes a defense of a whole constellation of goods threatened by the accelerating monetization of our moment. That a university-town bookstore loses money selling scholarly books (which are themselves subsidized) seems of a piece with museums and opera houses threatened with closure even as they take in large government subsidies and lean on tax incentives for philanthropy and yet price admission where it is inaccessible to all but a few and offer entry-level salaries acceptable only to people who don’t have to work; with higher education unaffordable to most yet frequently delivered by underpaid people with no job security or benefits; with public broadcasting airing ads for the Walton Family Foundation and Kaspersky Lab and Goldman Sachs; with the collection and reliable distribution of important public information becoming an untenable occupation. A society that docks workers pay while they’re in the bathroom and won’t put benches in public places has lost track of how to spend its money. We’re seeing pretty clearly how things go when we have no way to value things without a visible surface for a price tag. We are relying on volunteers and people working above-and-beyond to sustain our culture. Creating a harbor for reflection and the transmission of ideas (plural) is the explicit purpose of the Seminary Co-op bookstore-as-nonprofit.
As our digital economy channels us ever-more-speedily toward transactions, it steers us in the direction of what we already want or are likely to seize on reflexively. The internet’s promise of freedom has been quietly co-opted by those with the resources to benefit from predicting and managing our choices. Lockdown, which further entrenched the internet’s hold on our connectedness, has also been a lesson in what we lose when we lose the opportunities of serendipity. What did the college students shut in their rooms all around the Co-op lose when they were not able to encounter not only the books on the Co-op’s shelves but also each other in the Co-op’s aisles? To me, one of the biggest lessons of growing up has been how little I knew about how to proceed with living, how little my deliberate intentions contributed to my best outcomes. Economic Man, the “rational actor,” is the phantom around whom our digital reality is organized—when it’s not turned over to his irrational twin.
Deutsch rightly frames his defense of browsing—browsing is “the product” of the Seminary Co-op operation—as a proxy defense of all valuable things that happen off the clock. “We know that the most important things in the world—things like meaning, purpose, fulfilment, generosity, beauty, culture, most types of intelligence, and all forms of love—are beyond measure.” At the Co-op bookstores “we remain determined to practice a wise inefficiency, which, seen in another light, is an efficiency of a different order.” “We strive to create spaces that value attention over sensation, surprise beyond seduction, and a breed of books that stretches our understanding of that which is necessary to live well.” The Seminary Co-op nonprofit adventure is an articulation and a defense of the as-yet-unknown that we all deserve room to find.
Scenes from a partnership! I’ll be talking the craft with veteran book reviewer Donna Seaman (currently Editor for Adult Books at the American Library Association’s Booklist) as part of Seminary Co-op’s Sixtieth Anniversary celebrations on November 10! Stay tuned for details
Ann Kjellberg is the founding editor of Book Post. She worked as a book review editor at the New York Review of Books from 1988 to 2017, founded the literary magazine Little Star, and is the literary executor of the poet Joseph Brodsky.
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