The Co-op Now, as Ever: A Call to Action

“Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures.” – Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Members and Friends,

In advance of our June member sale, I would like to share some thoughts on both the state and the purpose of our Seminary Co-op Bookstores.

In ways measurable and unmeasurable, the Seminary Co-op is thriving. Since 2014, we have seen a topline sales increase of over 20% while the industry trend, as tracked by the Census Bureau, is down over 5%. We have maintained our collection of nearly 100,000 scholarly, general interest, and children’s books at our two locations. We have redoubled our commitment to cultural programming that complements our book selection and amplifies the reading experience. Our author events have increased tenfold, as last year we hosted or supported over 500 book talks. In addition, we have established our podcast, Open Stacks, developed our blog, expanded our world-class children’s lineup at 57th Street Books, and found ever more creative ways to both reflect and create our community. While we continue to operate at a deficit, this is the result of a deliberate strategy to establish a bookstore that is as much a cultural institution as it is a retailer. As I outlined in my letter to our membership in 2016, we carry books that, according to the logic of strict retail, we shouldn’t, but our aspirations toward creating a sense of delight and wonder in even the most seasoned reader demand that we do.

While the measurable results show exceptional progress and the struggle to remain economically viable continues, it’s the unmeasurable, extra-economic value we are creating that is, to my mind, the more inspiring trend. This effect has many causes, but for the purposes of this dispatch, I would like to share a few thoughts about time and the ways in which the Seminary Co-op fosters the expenditure of a certain kind of time. We can readily acknowledge that our prevailing culture doesn’t value immersive time (it seems we are always in a hurry), and that we frenetically check off endless to-do lists or passively scroll through media. Such habits attenuate our attention spans and lead us to pursue an illusion that the dazzling new thing will somehow bring us fulfillment. Although there is certainly truth to this characterization of our culture, it is not the reality that we booksellers of the Seminary Co-op see you experiencing daily in our shops. When you’re here, you experience time differently.

It takes time to browse the Front Table or our stacks. It takes time to single out which Lispector novel you’d like to read next, and even more time when your eye catches the curious cover of Saint Augustine’s Confessions on the Front Table first. In that time, you notice that there are not one but two new translations of Confessions alongside two new translations of Homer’s Odyssey, two new collections of Albert Murray’s writings, and a reissued volume of Pauli Murray’s Song in a Weary Throat (which recalls the Pauli Murray biography you spotted on your last Co-op visit) all assembled on that Front Table in an effort to create serendipitous literary discoveries. It takes time to speak with the bookseller behind the desk about the long-awaited translation of Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet or about the crucial new Stuart Hall collections, and to learn that we are also excited about Weil’s Gravity and Grace and the University of Chicago Press’s completion of its exceptional edition of Seneca’s works. It takes time to fade out of to-do lists and news cycles and into something more insightful, more enduring, more nourishing. Which is why a declaration made by poet and scholar Eve Ewing at an event in our stores earlier this year continues to echo in my ears. “Now more than ever,” she said, “I am sick of people saying, ‘Now more than ever.’”

How do we understand the distinction between now and ever? While the promise of something new might goad us to read the next article or watch the next episode, it is by connecting ourselves to that which endures that we may understand our present moment. By saying, “Now, as ever,” by looking not to the next new thing, but to the last enduring thing, we are more likely to grasp our unique and not-so-unique challenges, to learn the origin of a particular narrative, perhaps to subvert that narrative, to find meaning after tragedy, or to comprehend the capacity, complexity, and diversity of human nature, experience, and knowledge.

At their best, our stores inspire this engagement. 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. This is, at its core, the unmeasurable value of the Seminary Co-op: a community committed to a sense of time that endures beyond the present moment, connecting us to a wider conversation, spoken across the ages. In his essay “Experience,” written after he suffered great personal loss, Emerson wonders:

“If any of us knew what we were doing, or where we are going, then when we think we best know! We do not know today whether we are busy or idle. In times when we thought ourselves indolent, we have afterwards discovered that much was accomplished, and much was begun in us. All our days are so unprofitable while they pass, that 'tis wonderful where or when we ever got anything of this which we call wisdom, poetry, virtue. We never got it on any dated calendar day. Some heavenly days must have been intercalated somewhere…”

We encourage you to revel in this time. These moments are expansive; they are, somehow, not at the mercy of the clock. Here, the only urgency is the one created by the books themselves; the stacks are stuffed with them. Read one of those Lispector novels – she’ll tell you “of the instants that drip and are thick with blood.” Browse our classics section – you’ll know with Seneca that “time is the one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay.” Pursue that bookseller’s lead and you’ll hear from Weil how, “in the inner life, time takes the place of space.” Pick up one of those translations of Confessions – perhaps Sarah Ruden’s – and reflect upon the unfathomable repository of time: “In you, my mind, I measure time. Don’t shout me down with the protest that time is a thing in itself. Don’t shout yourself down with a riot of your feelings. In you, I say, I measure time.” And further down the page, you’ll measure, along with him, the silence.

No, not every moment – or every paragraph read – can transport you to this “ever,” nor is this what we desire. We need, after all, inspiration and expiration. Sometimes, sitting with or without your children in room two of 57th Street Books, listening to Franny, Colin, Miss April, or Mama Fresh read stories is enough. And sometimes you might just need a cookbook, or a place to study, or a travel guide that sparks the imagination, or a novel that goes down easy without insulting your intelligence. This, too, dignifies our mission.

We are committed to working with you, our community, to ensure we can continue to create spaces, physical and virtual, that are conducive to the discovery of ideas that endure, that seem to exist off the proverbial clock. By patronizing our stores, buying books, attending events, sending us financial gifts, engaging with our virtual presence, and sharing your enthusiasm with your community, you are helping guarantee that the Seminary Co-op Bookstores, too, will endure.

So read with us. Support us. Advocate on our behalf. Join us in this work of constructing a bookstore that explores unmeasurable values: discovery, reflection, presence, inquiry, curiosity, complexity, nuance, and deeper understanding. Invite others into this community. Share your stories with them. The more we articulate that which guides us to this place, the more we can aspire toward the best within ourselves. Help the uninitiated see why Ewing thinks the Co-op is “arguably the world's greatest bookstore.” Or why Cass Sunstein would say that “the air is cleaner [here],” and that it is “the very model of the bookstore, and it’s also a house of worship.” And, at last, why Wendy Doniger would observe, “If God is looking for ten reasons not to destroy the world, the Seminary Co-op would be the first.”

Yours in bookselling,

Jeff Deutsch

Director, Seminary Co-op Bookstores