A Simple Truth


Seminary Co-op community,

Since 2016, I have been writing to you something of a “state-of-the-stores” dispatch in advance of our annual member sale. It has been a chance to celebrate the work we’ve done as a community to keep these stores running and an opportunity to pause and reflect upon the mission of the bookstores. In this pause, I want to say thank you for all you do on behalf of the stores. It is you who animate our stacks, who bring the stores to life, and who perform the crucial work of drawing authors and arguments out across the millennia and into conversation with one another. 

In that 2016 letter, I wrote to you of the wise inefficiencies without which our stores would lose their depth, their ability to contract and dilate time almost concurrently, to offer up voices from eras past. These inefficiencies stood – and still stand – in contrast to the retail model, whose aim will always be structured around economies of scale and the ability to buy cheap and sell dear. At that point too, we were still a member-owned retail co-op whose institutional purpose was to maximize financial dividends for our shareholders. Both the retail model and the co-op model, though, failed to reflect the heart of the work we were undertaking.

In the 21st century, most readers don’t need a bookstore to buy books. And, in the 21st century, most bookstores that sell new books exclusively cannot make a living as a bookseller. Why then do we need bookstores at all? And, if the retail paradigm of financing operations with the proceeds from sales isn’t viable, how do we finance such wisely inefficient bookstores? 

Our answer – our argument, really – begins with a physical space for books which allows even the most learned reader to discover and rediscover books. While we exist to sell books, our product, one might say, is the browse itself. That browse is built almost entirely on wise inefficiencies. Due to the low margin, limited audience, and expense to ship and process the books critical to our collection, it costs us to sell you these titles. Yet we know there is value, if not profit, in that endeavor. 

After five years as director and after thousands of conversations with you, our community, I was altogether moved as Ken Warren, then our board president, led a special shareholder meeting in 2019. It was there that our shareholders, many of you among them, voted unanimously to empower the board to transition from a member-owned retail co-operative to the nation’s first (and currently only) not-for-profit bookstore whose mission is bookselling. We acknowledged, as a community, that financial dividends for shareholders – which were impossible to come by anyway – were not our intention; cultural dividends for stakeholders – that is, the entire community – were, and remain, our noble, stated goal.

Implicit in this shift is a simple truth that continues to ring true: bookstores like the Seminary Co-op might resemble retail, but the resemblance is superficial. We have always been a cultural institution disguised as a retailer. That year, we removed the disguise and established a not-for-profit bookstore. It was a major step toward answering that integral question about our wisely inefficient work, our purpose, and our financing.   

There was a massive challenge hidden in our proud declaration that we were the nation’s first not-for-profit bookstore whose mission is bookselling: the business model itself did not exist. Indeed, we didn’t simply step into a tax or financial category that was just waiting to be filled; instead, we acknowledged the singular work the Seminary Co-op has been doing for decades now and began building a model to support, not restrain, our work. 

Our goal in becoming a not-for-profit was to articulate the services we provide, the specific product we offer, and that our financing must come from sources beyond imagined retail profits. Our goal was to draw on what we do so well in order to better sketch out that new business model. 

The work of bookselling is specialized, and we will be sharing that specialization in newly funded ways. We are experts in filtration, selection, assemblage, and enthusiasm. We are community builders and advocates on behalf of literary culture. In addition to the important work of fundraising to support our mission, we will focus on selling our services (including programming and building collections) in order to support our primary mission of operating a physical bookstore stocked with books that inform and delight even the most engaged reader.

And so I return to that critical question of why we’re here at all if there is no profit to be had on the shelves and plenty of everything stores that can deliver you a book; and, in that same vein, I point you back toward our shelves, where you alone as a browser can draw out the arguments made across generations, can assemble and rearrange ancient and modern ethical quandaries, can stitch together your own guide to the good life. I hope that maintaining a place where such actions are even possible is argument enough. 

Yours in bookselling, 

Jeff Deutsch


Seminary Co-op and 57th Street Books