On Measure

“…let Your enormous Library be justified.” – Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel”

Members and Friends,

Bookselling is a cultural good and bookstores provide a civilizing service. As I complete my fifth year as director of the Seminary Co-op – over 10,000 hours in these stores and their community – the truth of this statement seems self-evident. And yet it remains difficult, in our age of quantification and utility, to establish a metric for success and to articulate a usefulness that satisfies our mania for productivity.

Considering that we truck in books, this is unsurprising. 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.

Alberto Manguel, in
Packing My Library, summons the irrational pull of bibliophilia by invoking a 14th-century Italian poet and humanist:

Petrarch doesn’t possess his library as much as his library possesses him. “I’m haunted by an inexhaustible passion that up to now I have not managed or wanted to quench. I feel that I have never enough books,” he says. “Books delight one in depth, run through our veins, advise us and bind with us in a kind of active and keen familiarity; and an individual book does not insinuate itself alone into our spirit, but leads the way for many more, and thus provokes in us a longing for others.”

Every one of those words rings true.

We are a cultural institution disguised as a retailer. We cater to those haunted by a passion for learning, unsure if they can or want to quench it. Our cultural work of creating an unparalleled browsing experience and a hub for community – a gathering place predicated upon the written word and the printed page, devoted to literature of enduring, discursive, and aspirational value – needs no further utility to justify its existence.

We booksellers bear witness to the moment our patrons step into the stillness our space engenders. In that stillness, when usefulness and computation are no longer at the fore, curiosity, discovery, and reflection are given their due. The utility of this time cannot be measured, a notion I explored in depth
last year. “Why are we reading,” asks Annie Dillard in The Writing Life, “if not in the hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? …Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power?”

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.

And yet, few of us can escape the call to justify ourselves with numbers. Considering our aims, this calculus is sort of beside the point, which isn’t to say it isn’t interesting. So let’s give it a go, shall we?

According to the media, bookstores are thriving. The American Booksellers’ Association will tell you that “over the past 10 years, there has been a national resurgence for independent bookstores.” and they are correct. I can personally vouch for the vibrant and brilliant generation of booksellers who have opened or taken on the stewardship of bookstores throughout the country. I am as inspired as ever by my colleagues and know that the industry is in determined, creative, and dexterous hands.

But the Seminary Co-op and 57th Street Books are different from other bookstores and perhaps I might illustrate those differences with some numbers.

The overall bookstore industry, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, saw an increase of 1.7% in their topline sales in 2018. Barnes & Noble’s last annual report showed a loss of 6% in topline sales. On average, independent bookstores realized a 3.2% increase in topline sales and a 5.9% increase for the most profitable stores.

The Seminary Co-op Bookstores grew by 8.7% last year and we have grown by 31% in the last five years. This is a remarkable number.

While our growth is significantly outpacing the industry’s growth, there are unique reasons that our increases in the topline aren’t resulting in commensurate increases in the bottom line. In addition to the rising costs of the bookstore business and our commitment to reinvesting in the stores’ inventory and staff, there are some specific challenges created by our business model, and our commitment to the cultural work of bookselling.

One of our unofficial mottos was “no coffee, no knick-knacks, just books.” While most of us appreciate a decent café and some tastefully selected tchotchkes, it sometimes seems that bookstores are making it more and more difficult for their patrons to find the books. For booksellers, sidelines are an economic imperative, providing significantly more profit than the most profitable book sale. The average independent bookstore sells 81.7% books. Our stores sell 98% books.

Our stacks are filled with books published by university presses and small presses, many of whom are having their own
struggles articulating their value and justifying their expense. While the margins from major presses are not good (thus the commitment to the tchotchke), the margins from small and university presses are even worse. The cost of a book to an average independent bookstore is 54.7% of the cover price. The cost of the books on our shelves is 62.3%.

Patience is not a retail strategy. Retailers want to sell their stock quickly, “turning” their inventory at a rapid pace. Every book must earn its real estate by selling and selling quickly. But our cultural mission is to create a browsing experience and to put books in the hands of readers. The average independent bookstore turns their inventory twice as much as we do in a given year and our books remain on our shelves for 280 days, compared to 133 days. (To be clear, the “average” independent bookstore is extraordinary. We are comparing ourselves to the best bookselling has to offer and remarking the differences.)

One of the most telling metrics is the number of single titles we sell. Our bestsellers are robust and reflect our community, including books like
Becoming (over 1,000 copies sold), Ghosts in the Schoolyard (nearly 700 sold), An Academic Life (nearly 500 sold), and, of course, University of Chicago coursebooks like The Second Sex (~250) and The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (~100). We sold 28,000 titles last year. 16,000 (or 57%) of those titles sold one copy. Our patience and commitment to a diverse and eclectic selection turned out to be the correct choice for 16,000 patrons.

There is an apt comparison of our cultural approach to bookselling with an 80-year-old statement of purpose. Abraham Flexner, the visionary founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study, whose objective was to liberate scholars and writers from the question of utility, allowing their curiosity to lead their experimentation, provided a clear and persuasive articulation of a different measure in his 1939 essay for Harper’s Magazine, “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.”:

Institutions of learning should be devoted to the cultivation of curiosity, and the less they are deflected by considerations of immediacy of application, the more likely they are to contribute not only to human welfare but to the equally important satisfaction of intellectual interest which may indeed be said to have become the ruling passion of intellectual life in modern times.

There’s something delightfully democratic about our stores. Whereas the Institute for Advanced Study is only accessible to a select few, the language Flexner uses to describe it could well be applied to our space, for scholars and curious general readers alike: “It exists as a paradise for scholars who, like poets and musicians, have won the right to do as they please and who accomplish most when enabled to do so.”

As we continue to explore a new model of bookselling, working toward establishing the first not-for-profit bookstore whose cultural mission is bookselling proper, we remain determined to practice a wise inefficiency, which, seen in another light, is an efficiency of a different order. We have learned from Gwendolyn Brooks that, “Books feed and cure and chortle and collide.” Let these be the measures destined for our souls.

Yours in bookselling,

Jeff Deutsch
Director, Seminary Co-op Bookstores