Reckless Reader: Seminary Co-Op

October 9, 2021

Jeff Deutsch, Director of Chicago’s Seminary Co-op, has been a bookseller since 1994. Apart from a brief stint at an artists’ community, it’s all he’s ever done. “It’s very fulfilling,” he told me in a conversation over Zoom. “I remember visiting the Co-op before I started. I remember very well that first descent down the stairs and into the labyrinth of books that was so storied.”

The Seminary Co-op was founded in 1961 and is celebrating its 60th birthday this year. Originally a member-owned Co-op whose purpose was to procure obscure books cheaply, the store started out owned by and serving the students at the University of Chicago Theological Seminary. This remained the C0-op’s main role throughout its first decade, but when Jack Cella became the manager in 1973, the store transformed into a global hub for academic books of all kinds. “Every academic, novelist, and thinker who came through Chicago became a member,” said Jeff, naming Susan Sontag and Barack Obama as examples.

In 1983, the Co-op expanded and opened a general interest store called 57th Street Books, which sits just around the corner. 57th St. boasts a world-class children’s bookstore, which was honored with the NBA Pannell Award, one of the most prestigious honors in children’s bookselling in the United States in 2019. Together, these two stores make up the Co-op today.

The stores’ location on the South Side of Chicago, in the Hyde Park Neighborhood, shapes much of their role. The Co-op has a strong sense of neighborhood pride, and the store works closely with community centers, schools, libraries, and other literary organizations like the Chicago Humanities Festival with the aim of not only bringing outside cultural programming into the South Side community, but also bringing other people into the neighborhood to showcase the rich local scene. “We both reflect and create the community of the South Side of Chicago,” said Jeff. “This area represents some of the wealthiest and under-resourced communities, which is deliberate. The history of Chicago is not a noble one in terms of redlining and things like that. The University of Chicago is a wonderful institution, but it is not blameless.”

Recognizing the complicated history of the area, the Seminary Co-op works hard to bring residents of other neighborhoods to the South Side for events not just in Hyde Park but all throughout the area, highlighting the great literary histories that run deep. “Ultimately, though, we’re here for the bookish,” Jeff added. “When folks move away from books and into other ways of engaging, we’re not following them. We let that commitment draw its own accolades.”

In 2019, Jeff and his coworkers sat down to try to answer the question many booksellers have been grappling with: what is the role of a bookstore in the 21st century? Why do we need them? They had all watched other stores struggle to turn a profit selling only books; additional offerings of records and coffee had become necessary to stay afloat. These conversations culminated with the decision to transition to a not-for-profit. The Seminary Co-op is the first and only non-for-profit bookstore in the country whose mission is bookselling with no other goals: “We’re positing the argument that we are our own cultural good. We don’t need further justification. We aren’t a 501c3 because the IRS doesn’t need to put their stamp on us. For us, it’s about building a space fully devoted to books,” Jeff remarked. “Creating a browsing experience that can surprise and delight even the most jaded among us. What is the effect of a physical space devoted to books on an individual community, on the culture of the city? We’re trying to deliberately build a model for the bookstore that no longer apologizes for the inefficiencies that arise in great bookselling.”

During the pandemic, the very real possibility of going out of business loomed large. The two stores were closed for 455 days, and during that period, the employees were working in the space the entire time. Jeff described those days as “intense and beautiful,” and remembers feeling like the ghosts of the customers were hovering in the stores. The Co-op essentially became a warehouse, subsisting off of PPP loans and a large number of online orders. “And here we are now in the fall of 2021, with a fighting chance,” said Jeff, smiling. “We’ll find out what this looks like in the future. Part of our argument is that bookselling needs a new model, and in some ways, this accelerates that argument. It feels like we may be able to talk to some publishers more openly now.” Moving forward, the Co-op is dedicated to having dialogues about bookselling’s place in today’s world, and encourages customers to shop local. Following the Seminary Co-op’s reopening in June, 57th Street Books welcomed customers back to the stores in August after 530 days of closure to the public. Jeff recalls being “weepy” when the first store opened its doors, and his reaction was the same second time around.

Jeff highlighted a few specific ventures he’s looking forward to, including the launch of a subscription box, the return of their podcast from hiatus, and the arrival of some new imprints, including Ode Books from Prickly Paradigm Press. The Co-op has been a part owner of Prickly Paradigm for years, and Jeff describes the press as publishing “book-length essays from powerhouse thinkers; diatribes against everything you think you like.” Ode Books will take a different route, publishing essays by “people who like books and write about everything that’s good.” Work by Paul Yamazaki and Donna Seaman is forthcoming. While events at the Co-op remain virtual for the time being, Jeff is looking forward to working with the University of Chicago’s My Very Own Library Program, an organization that pays for buses to and from literary events so students can come free of charge. They also provide free books for those who attend the readings.

When asked about goals he has for the Co-op, Jeff offered me this: “The first thing we’re trying to do is keep this place going, the second thing is help professionalize bookselling, and then the third thing is to do both of those without compromising our bookstore. The fourth is to be a model for others.” Part of their work is to define the value of not only books themselves, but the people who make them, ensuring better wages and working conditions for all. The Co-op works hard to fundraise and value their work without undercutting anyone. “The ecosystem of the store really matters. We are a democratic institution; the doors are open for all. Anyone can come in and browse; anyone can sit and read. These days, most people can buy a book from Amazon for cheaper than we can buy it from the publisher. There are booksellers who buy their books from Amazon because they get better margins. It’s obscene to think about what is lost when we don’t build a sustainable model. Booksellers are already paid less than they should be. That’s what we mean when we talk about professionalizing bookselling: making appropriate salaries.”

Image courtesy of Seminary Co-Op.

Throughout the pandemic, Jeff saw twin tracks of bestselling books: classic novels and antiracist how-tos. These are both genres that have been popular at the Co-op for years, but Jeff noticed that their customers were going deeper: “When it came to antiracism, they were also looking for deeper assessments of the system, including books on banking, housing, mass incarceration, schooling. To see those books and the children’s books in that category get attention was really good. But it’s interesting to see what happens when the din is silenced. People are finding books from the most disparate places, the most random places. We carry 100,000 books on our shelves, and we get to bring in 30,000 new books each year, with the hope that we’ll sell 30,000 books in any given year. Every single day we were getting orders for books that we had never heard of before. We’re a retailer who has to think about not just what’s in print now, but what has ever been in print, and what it means to stock certain authors and not others, and all these decisions…it’s gorgeous.” He laughed. “But it’s a ridiculous business proposition.”

Jeff himself has a book coming out in the spring of 2022 from Princeton University Press: In Praise of Good Bookstores, which he describes as “an exploration and celebration of [the Co-op’s] approach.” He recommends Lost and Found by Katherine Schulz, which is forthcoming from Random House, and Divine Days by Leon Forrest, which is an out-of-print Ulysses for the South Side of Chicago.

Thinking over the ongoing trials of the pandemic, Jeff praises his colleagues highly. “I am blown away and humbled to be working with this group,” he said, lauding the skills of coworkers Kaitlynn Cassady, Clancey D’Isa, Alena Jones, Sonja Coates and Bryce Lucas. “I hope that no one forgets the lessons of last year: that everything is so fragile. I hope we’ve all learned how responsible we are for the community. I work very closely with philanthropists and rich institutions. I know how much money there is. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be supported.” The Seminary Co-op will be doing their part to support the bookselling community for many years to come.

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Feature image copyright Steve Hall.

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