As Lost as the Rest of Us: On Jeff Deutsch’s “In Praise of Good Bookstores”
By Lily Houston SmithMay 20, 2022
In Praise of Good Bookstores by Jeff Deutsch
The joke, in all its eye-roll-inducing daddishness, is that he can’t remember the word book — that books are a technology as obsolete as the Betamax or the mimeograph, or, in perhaps a more fitting metaphor, the papyrus scroll. Why litter one’s home with relics, the punch line suggests, when one can easily access their most important resource — information — in our sleek, synthetic devices. In the traditional idiom of the dad joke, it is stupid and misses the point. Book publishing, troubled though it may be, remains a multibillion-dollar industry. Certainly there are those who would claim with earnestness that the book is outmoded — has lost all but the most tenuous sliver of its cultural cachet — but that would not stop those same dissenters from sinking entire days into television series based on novels, or from finding other volumes so threatening they see it fit to ban them from schools.
I say the joke is telling, though, because even the most devout book-lovers among us can’t deny an uneasy slippage taking place. Media coverage of books is dwindling; small presses struggle against homogenization; independent booksellers slip quietly toward extinction. By the cynical logic of the free market, we can surmise that booksellers offer a product for which there is no demand. With a few sleights of hand, one might even argue that by selling books at a loss, Amazon is performing an act of charity, using its wealth and influence to keep books in circulation in a world that is unwilling to pay their market price.
You may have experienced, while reading those sentences, a sharp feeling of vitriol — a reflexive defensiveness similar to that which I feel when my dad tells his joke about boo-ahks. What free market? you ask. Amazon is artificially decreasing the value of books! If that sounds like you, then I recommend Jeff Deutsch’s In Praise of Good Bookstores, a slim volume that came out from Princeton University Press in April. The book, Deutsch’s first, takes the form of a long essay that is both an echo of and an elaboration on a decision made in 2019, when Chicago’s renowned Seminary Co-op Bookstores, of which Deutsch is the director, shed the artifice of their retailer status and incorporated as a nonprofit. Their mission? Simply, to sell books. Today’s literary landscape, they seemed to say, makes moot the question of whether there is a commercially viable way to run a bookstore. Of course there isn’t. (As Deutsch reminds us in the introduction, “good bookstores have never made good business sense.”) “We’re positing the argument,” said Deutsch in an interview with this publication last year, “that we are our own cultural good. We don’t need further justification.”
If “cultural good” strikes you as a maddeningly vague descriptor, I regret to inform you that In Praise of Good Bookstores won’t give you the ah-ha specificity that you might be seeking, or that might help you win an argument with my dad. It does, however, put forth a moving and capacious argument that seems less concerned with convincing skeptics that there is something urgent and necessary about spaces devoted to books (and to their thoughtful, algorithm-free curation) than it does with validating, heartening, and invigorating believers. Deutsch calmly and deftly defends the value of bookstores while eschewing the panicky self-justification and broad-strokes condemnations of our bloodless, anti-intellectual plutocracy that some might default to (read: that I might default to), instead favoring a quiet, loving return to what drew us book-lovers to bookstores in the first place.
Throughout the book, Deutsch makes frequent reference to his upbringing in an Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, evoking a religious heritage that imbues the act of reading with profound care, spirituality, and love. “Observant Jews,” he tells us, “are accustomed to kissing the cover of a book after closing it — a habit that has remained with me throughout the years.” In Praise of Good Bookstores often has the quality of a religious text. This is no doubt in part because of the deep reverence Deutsch has for books, and the cultural tradition from which that reverence springs, but it also has to do with a certain religiosity of tone — unhurried despite its concision, rich with enchanting aphorisms. (A personal favorite: “There are forms of idleness that energize as there are forms of productivity that are wasteful.” So good!) Despite its title, the book reads less like an ode than a question — What makes a good bookstore? — and in answering the question, another arises, an age-old and hopelessly lofty one: what makes a good life?
I am not exaggerating. Deutsch is indeed interested in the tangible qualities that distinguish a good bookstore from, say, the book aisle at Target or one of those creepy, antiseptic Amazon stores that have sprung up over the last few years. Discussing those tangible qualities, however, often snowballs into larger questions about fate and serendipity or the confrontation we all eventually must have with our imminent mortality. Just read over the chapter titles for a sense of the scale of Deutsch’s inquiry: “Space,” “Abundance,” “Value,” “Community,” and “Time.”
To navigate terrains as treacherous as these, Deutsch draws from an impressive store of voices that stretch back millennia and that hail from a wide range of cultural and intellectual traditions. Everywhere are quotes, short and long, from authors familiar and new. In the first chapter alone, you’ll encounter Gaston Bachelard, Jamie Kalven, Mary Cappello, Steven Carter, Ishiwara Masaakira, John Locke, Samuel Ibn Tibbon, Diogenes Laërtius, Epicurus, Aleksandar Hemon, and more than a dozen others. This deluge of quotations and references — a tactic that risks busyness and pretension — flows naturally from Deutsch’s hands; he interweaves text, personal history, and reflection with the seamless fluidity of Maggie Nelson at her best, conducting a lively, dynamic conversation that is at once argument and exploration. It’s an aptitude that makes sense in light of Deutsch’s decades-long tenure as a bookseller; the structure parallels the experience of browsing a bookstore. Summoning Michel de Montaigne (“I leaf through now one book, now another”), Deutsch likens the form of the essay to the browse, as he calls it: “an amble about,” he writes, “considering now this and now that, a wandering series of thoughts that hope to limn a question.”
He devotes a great deal of space to capturing the essence of the browse, which is a key component of what, for him, makes a bookstore good. “The good bookstore sells books,” he writes, “but its primary product, if you will, is the browsing experience.” Anyone who has spent an afternoon of energized idleness perusing the shelves of Powell’s or McNally Jackson can attest to the joy and value of book browsing, but Deutsch expounds upon the subject with the hyper-specificity of a veteran bookseller. Here is, for example, a “non-exhaustive” list of browsers Deutsch tends to see at the Co-op:
[T]he flaneur, who meanders through the stacks, observing, loitering, shuffling; the sandpiper, who sees the world in a grain of sand; the town crier, who heralds the latest news from the pages of the books on the front table; the ruminator, chewing their cud; the pilgrim, seeking wisdom, they know not what or where, but knowing that they must find it; the devotee, who prays daily, regardless of the season; the penitent, who has not lived as they ought and is now seeking redemption, or at least forgiveness; the palimpsest, who reads and rereads and knows that every reading leaves its inscrutable mark; the chef, who trusts their senses to help them identify the most delectable ingredients; the initiate, who doesn’t know the mores of the place but is hopeful they might soon belong; the stargazer, who takes in the sky with a well-honed attention; the general, who sees the stacks as a thing to be conquered; and the idler, who just wants to while away the hours among books.
I quote this passage at length in part to give you a sense of the text’s devotional rhythm (almost the entire book hums with this soothing, hypnotic authority) and in part with the hopes that it might elicit the same pleasurable spark of recognition in you that it did in me (I admit to being at times a town crier, at others a chef, most often a pilgrim, and have made trips to bookstores with penitents, idlers, and devotees). This passage is also a delightful illustration of what I meant earlier when I described his argument as capacious. It is the work of the serious bookseller, Deutsch tells us, to curate experience — to dictate “the logic and serendipities of the browse,” to make “the discordant wilds of bookish inquiry manageable.” From this vantage, the bookseller is no different than, say, a rabbi, pastor, or imam. The job, boiled down to its essence, is this: to act as a guide — imperfectly, of course, as they themselves are, by nature of their humanity, as lost as the rest of us.
As with all religious texts, In Praise of Good Bookstores has its limitations. Logic, for instance, often feels beside the point, and when Deutsch sinks into the doldrums of meticulous reasoning, the magic of his prose slips away. An example:
Value increases with scarcity. But scarcity can also result from our undervaluing something of great value. We might consider it thus: there is an inflated value based on scarcity and a scarcity based on deflated value. While the things that are deemed of value for no other reason than their scarcity grow more valuable by dint of increasing scarcity, those things that are scarce by dint of being undervalued are likely to pass into extinction.
The passage makes good enough sense, if you happened to read to the end of it, but see how the music that pulsed under his list of browsers sputters and stalls? In other instances, it is not a lapse in phrasing but a sudden claim that jolts one from the tranquil rhythm of the prose. At one point, for example, Deutsch deems the expansion of public library services “dispiriting,” his argument being that these new services, while important in their own right, “dilute the original purpose of a library as a storehouse of books.” While Deutsch is careful to capitulate — “Libraries are treasures,” he writes, “of course” — the casual critique of another institution under threat of extinction chafes.
Such is the nature of the browse. We sift through ideas, some that excite, others that jar. In the case of In Praise of Good Bookstores, I found that Deutsch is charming and thoughtful on the page — one of those original, busy minds that makes for a fun and captivating read — and it’s in his wandering, open-hearted tone (not in his arguments) that he summons (rather than explains) the concept of a cultural good. As I said earlier, Deutsch will not help you win an argument with a skeptic, but he might equip you with the calm resolve that all the hours whiled away in bookstores, the money shelled out for shiny new hardcovers, the days sunk into stories and philosophies and histories, are not misspent; they are the building blocks of a life meaningfully and urgently lived. You might even feel moved, after turning the final page, to raise the book to your lips, and kiss the cover with gratitude and awe.
Lily Houston Smith is a critic, essayist, and audio producer based in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Guernica, Vol.1 Brooklyn, Chicago Review of Books, and elsewhere. She is a recent graduate of the Cultural Reporting & Criticism program at NYU.
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