On the Necessity of Books: A Call to Action

On the Necessity of Books: A Call to Action

To the Seminary Co-op Community:
In a call to action sent one year ago, I attempted to articulate the importance and uniqueness of the Co-op, as well as the challenges that it faces by virtue of those same qualities. I described the occasionally competing cultural and financial considerations that inform our decisions, how our tendency to side with culture – embodied in our vast inventory of academic and scholarly publications – makes it difficult to succeed as a business, even as we continue to excel as a cultural institution. Ultimately, and most consequentially, I asked for your help in ensuring the Co-op – and all that it stands for – will thrive for generations to come. The request was simple: buy one more book than you otherwise would, and convince family, friends, or colleagues to do the same.
The response was overwhelming. Our sales in June 2016 (the letter was sent at the end of May) increased by 28% over June 2015, which helped us achieve 5% growth for the full fiscal year 2015-16. This was the first year of growth for the Seminary Co-op Bookstores since the turn of the century, and we couldn’t have done it without you.
I received direct replies from hundreds of you throughout the world, voices from four continents and from nearly half our states. These responses fell mostly into three categories: declarations of gratitude and amens, offers of your professional expertise to help foster our business, and expressions of the conviction that we weren’t “asking enough” – that simply buying one additional book and suggesting others do the same wasn't sufficient. The Co-op's staff and I were greatly moved by the sentiments you expressed, and this outpouring of support guided our efforts in the subsequent year.
Allow me to share a few of your comments, in hopes that you will find them as inspiring as we did:
“This is a cultural center like no other, and your message underscores how lucky we all are to be part of that culture.”
“I wish you and the Co-op nothing but the best in your important efforts to keep this amazing bookstore, a national treasure that keeps so much knowledge alive and circulating, strong and vibrant.”
“If Hyde Park were to lose this institution I think it might very well lose its soul.”
“Your work brings such meaning, changed our lives. Thank you, from the quiet, bookish thousands. It’s a lonely world out here.”
The idea of the Co-op is well expressed by the exceptional novelist (and Co-op shareholder) Aleksander Hemon. He writes:
“A bookstore is a pick-up place of ideas, a public space organized around the value and beauty of reading.…Every bookstore provides evidence that humanity could transcend the worst in itself and at least attempt to be great. Bookstores are places of hope, because the hope is contained in the written records of humanity’s worst deeds, available with a 10 percent credit for members.

“What makes the Co-op so great is that it is so unabashedly invested in the necessity of books. You can read that investment in the depth of reading choices, in the width of human interests the books cover, in the thoroughness of making sure no corner of the human mind is underrepresented. Because, as we know, books are manuals for being in the world.”

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Such words, coming from supporters of all ages both near and far, were deeply humbling and profoundly encouraging. It became clear that many – more, indeed, than we could have imagined – share our commitment to intellectual curiosity and thoughtful curation, and recognize that the community of ideas fostered by the Co-op is as valuable as it is uncommon. Further, and importantly, many wanted to increase their advocacy by becoming more involved in the Co-op and finding new ways to contribute to its stewardship, whether they were daily visitors to the stores or corresponding from afar. We realized we needed not only to make it easier for supporters to become more engaged but to increase our offerings to those in the diaspora who share in our ideals.
To say that your words and ideas galvanized us into action is an understatement. We spent much of this past year pursuing projects that will bring the Co-op to you, wherever you are. While not losing sight of our core business – operating two community bookstores in Hyde Park – we recognized that our mission is not tied to a particular place and that the idea of the Co-op is a portable one. We believe that serious books of enduring value deserve attention; in a society that privileges immediacy, expediency, and sloganeering, a nuanced perspective, one that respects history and culture, and that requires a bit of effort – and, well, an attention span – is of critical significance. Reading is critical. This is as true now as it has always been. No amount of gadgetry or expedited content delivery can supplant the experience that Wallace Stevens so sublimely conjures when the house is quiet and the world is calm.
Our mission is to help discerning readers discover enduring books, and, to this end, we have greatly expanded our methods of dissemination over the past year. For those in the diaspora, we reimagined our website, shifting to a markedly cleaner, mobile-responsive interface and adding a real-time virtual Front Table. We revitalized our blog, which now includes original contributions from such exceptional writers as Susan Stewart, Eliot Weinberger, and Kwame Dawes. Offering an alternative to algorithm-driven book discovery, our Reading is Critical series provides lists inspired by the tastes and curiosities of our booksellers, members, and authors, including Deepak Unnikrishnan, Henry Giroux, and Sarah Hammerschlag. In June, we will launch our podcast, Open Stacks, which will feature recordings of our many in-store events, with the aim of inviting listeners to sit in on the kind of candid discussions and lively debates made possible by the participation of readers in a public space.
For citizens of Chicago, we have vastly increased our offsite events, expanding partnerships with the Chicago Humanities Festival, the Poetry Foundation, the DuSable Museum of African American History, and the Family Action Network, among many other venerable institutions. We have also established a robust educator support program: we offer discounts for educators purchasing books for classroom use, as well as a suite of services for schools, like book fairs, author visits, library curation, and on-site storytimes.
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In addition to proving that you needn’t be nearby to treasure what the Co-op has to offer, you have asked for further ways to help our stores and everything they represent. To that end, we have compiled a repository of advocacy ideas, many of which were inspired by your suggestions. And while we have developed many tools for specific constituencies, there are certainly ideas that apply to all. These include participating in, and sharing, our social media, offering small financial gifts with our website’s "Support Us"” button, and considering gift cards for special occasions. If you are looking for ways to engage with the store beyond browsing and buying, review the possibilities that dovetail with your role and identify a few you might like to pursue. You’ll surely find one or two ways to help.
And, of course, continue to buy more books from us. If you bought one additional book last year, perhaps buy one additional book per month. If you convinced a member of your community to buy an additional book, convince a few more this year. We are a bookstore, after all, and if we are to persist, it will be as a bookstore. The encouraging trend last year – a sales increase in a market that is largely seeing contraction – is even more encouraging this year. Our sales are currently up 10%, on top of last year’s 5% increase. While we continue to struggle with our bottom line, and to lose money overall, we are on the right track, as we are losing significantly less than we have in prior years. We are resolute in growing, not cutting, our way out of the deficit.
Although we can’t do this without you, it is also true that we can do this with you. Thank you for helping us build a community predicated upon, as Stevens writes, “the access of perfection to the page.”

Yours in bookselling,
Jeff Deutsch
Director, Seminary Co-op Bookstores
5751 S. Woodlawn Ave. 
Chicago, IL 60637