On Endurance: A Call to Action (7/1/20)

Members and Friends,


The conclusion of our annual member sale and the beginning of our new fiscal year is always a time for reflection for us. I had expected this year’s sale would be a time of celebration. I had hoped we would celebrate the double-digit growth in our topline sales over the last few years, the continued increase in book events we host and support annually (over 700 in 2019), and the monumental transition last autumn from a D.C. cooperative to an Illinois not-for-profit bookstore, the first such bookstore whose mission is bookselling.


Instead of celebrating our tremendous work as a community, we are in a time of great uncertainty, of physical separation. It is a grievous time for so many and an anxious time for most. Our lives and communities are facing a nearly inconceivable rupture, as are our beloved institutions and businesses. So much of what was familiar to us has changed.


So instead, we acknowledge the extraordinary nature of this moment, when the stacks remain closed and two of the pursuits that most define our work – creating a world-class browsing experience and drawing community together over our shared love of books – are unavailable. This is not a challenge any of us anticipated or were prepared to face.


But we have manuals for this. Our stores are filled with them. While some of this is new, much of it is not, as an afternoon browsing these manuals shows us. Now as ever, it is critical to focus on our core values, what so many of us have gleaned from these volumes. If we were to consult our libraries, we might find some insight, solace, or wisdom, some much-needed perspective from the past to interpret the present and dream of a future. George Eliot hoped her readers might attain "a clearer conception and a more active admiration of those vital elements which bind men together." We ardently believe that the volumes on our shelves from Eliot to hooks to Arendt, to name a few can all elucidate those vital elements.


In these moments of nearly unendurable isolation, tumult, and mourning, you continue to gather from our stacks words that might bind us together. Since we closed our doors to the public on March 14th, you have bought a broad selection of works by some of our finest authors, living and dead, including 38 individual titles by Shakespeare, 18 by Foucault, 16 each by Plato and Aristotle, 12 by Virginia Woolf, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Charles Dickens, 11 by Haruki Murakami and Giorgio Agamben, 10 by Toni Morrison, nine by bell hooks, Wendell Berry, and Sigmund Freud, eight by Hannah Arendt, Elena Ferrante, and Milan Kundera, seven by Anne Carson, Fred Moten, and Leo Strauss, and six by W.E.B. DuBois, Clarice Lispector, and George Eliot, not to mention four copies just of Middlemarch.


This non-exhaustive list is one of the many uncommon metrics that help explain the unique nature of our work, including the reason our stores’ model will never turn a profit on book sales alone. We have become a not-for-profit bookstore because we know that in the 21st century, no one needs bookstores, in a practical sense, to buy a book. There might be cheaper and easier ways to buy books, presuming hidden costs remain hidden and the value of physical interaction is discounted. But it is our belief that bookstores are critical to an educated, inquiring, and informed citizenry. We recognize that, in addition to purchasing books, most of our customers patronize our bookstores in order to engage with a space dedicated to books and a fellowship of bibliophiles because, to paraphrase Woolf, looking together unites us. Together we are imagining a structure that might ensure that that space, the Seminary Co-op, endures.


You have shown us great support and affection over the last 15 weeks as we have tried to bring you a taste of our stores from a distance. You have placed ten times as many online orders as you did the same time last year, and then you have waited with patience and understanding as we and the US Postal Service figured out how to safely and efficiently deliver your books while maintaining the health of our respective staffs. You have given over $170,000 to our COVID-19 Relief Fund, which is nearing its $250,000 goal. You have sent us notes of encouragement and goodwill, including kind sentiments like:


“A world without the Seminary Coop is inconceivable.”


“This store is the reason I came to the city of Chicago. I couldn't bear to see it disappear.”


“Whatever we mean by and whatever is positive about civilization is only possible because of the (very) few places like this.”


“I wish all the best for a very special place that began a lifelong love of reading and friendship for a father and daughter. Thank you!”


“Not just a bookstore but a shelter from chaos, a haven for the life of the mind, the center of a beautiful world.”


If “gratitude is the moral memory of mankind,” as Georg Simmel wrote, “and may yet engender new actions,” we are doing what we can to reflect your gratitude with our own, funneling that energy into adapting what we do best to this moment. In addition to decidedly increased efficiency in delivering your books safely, we have committed to these “new actions,” adaptations of what we do best:


  • reviving The Front Table: Armchair Browsing for the Socially Distant, allowing you to browse wherever you might be
  • developing our Starter Stacks bundles, which will help you to gift collections to build children’s libraries
  • releasing recordings from our vast Open Stacks archives and establishing a Patreon model so that you may support us as we record the new season of our podcast 
  • implementing curbside pickup and a neighborhood delivery program that will help ensure you receive your books swiftly and safely
  • creating a member video, updating our community on the status of our stores 


We will continue to be nimble and we will continue to find ways to serve you from a distance. We will do everything we can, within our character, to ensure that we might serve you again in person, deliberately, with a great browse and an abundance of community.


But we know not to be too proud to ask for help or too confident in our ability to endure by wit and innovation alone. Along with the rest of the book industry, many cultural institutions, and so much else we have taken for granted, our very existence is threatened. We must, then, examine our mode of existence deeply. “Whenever anyone begins to think about arts advocacy,” Toni Morrison writes in The Source of Self-Regard, “a complex obstacle presents itself at once: artists have a very bad habit of being resilient, and it is that resilience that deceives us into believing that the best of it sort of gets done anyhow – and the ‘great’ of that ‘best’ sort of lasts anyhow.” Morrison, writing about artists and arts organizations, could have been writing about so many treasured institutions, including ours.


Indeed, we already lost two of the country's last remaining academic bookstores just last month: the 46-year-old University Press Books in Berkeley and the 58-year-old Penn Book Center in Philadelphia both announced that they were permanently closing. Our bookstore, nearing 60, is subject to the same threats and challenges that finally brought down these two esteemed shops. The best does not sort of last anyhow. In light of the current crisis, it is clear that it will be ever more difficult for stores like ours to endure, for there to remain a space where we might simply browse alongside each other, bound together in the act of reading.


And so we continue to ask for your support. Your book purchases, financial gifts, and enthusiastic advocacy are the only reasons we are still here. For that we are endlessly grateful and humbly embrace the responsibility of stewarding these beleaguered and beloved stores into their uncertain future. Because ultimately, as Meister Eckhart wrote, “the fruitfulness of a gift is the only gratitude for the gift.”


Yours in Bookselling,


Jeff Deutsch

Director, Seminary Co-op Bookstore and 57th Street Books