A Space Devoted Solely to Books

Members and Friends, 

“What is the value of a space devoted solely to books?” This is one of the compelling questions our newly minted director of buying and content, Alena Jones, asks in her recent essay for Lithub. As we celebrate our 60th anniversary this year, and reflect on two years of serving our community as a not-for-profit bookstore whose mission is bookselling, we too have sought to answer that question in a thoughtful manner. And we are not alone in that pondering: over the past year, your collective responses to that same question have been humbling and energizing.

Since we closed to the public last March, the esteemed booksellers of the Seminary Co-op and 57th Street Books have transformed the stores' processes behind closed doors such that we could continue to serve you safely. And, although we are proud to have had our efforts recognized as a Publishers Weekly Bookstore of the Year finalist, the empty aisles and fallow stacks that have been our workplace this past year have deepened our understanding of an assumption we have long held: a fulfillment center is not a bookstore. Our bookstores exist for the browser and, dear Browser (if I may), we have missed you, and have been eagerly and impatiently looking forward to the day we might invite you to return to our stacks. And on that note, I am thrilled that we will begin our process of opening our doors on June 12th!

We have publicly articulated the reasons for our prolonged closure up to this point. Again, health concerns precipitated by the pandemic were not the sole reasons we remained closed for the last 15 months; rather, our financial and operational challenges are what kept our doors shut. Without the support we received from the federal government’s PPP loans, miscellaneous grants, and, of course, your generous financial contributions, we would not have been able to survive this past year. In addition to your financial gifts, your continued patronage and your celebration of our stores within your own communities have seen us through this deeply uncertain year. We truly can’t thank you enough.

And while we are soberly hopeful when we consider our future, we know that the path forward is uphill, and not only because it will require considerable effort in recreating a momentum that was arrested by the pandemic. In the 21st century, no reader needs a bookstore to buy books and no bookstore can sustain itself financially on the sale of books alone. In addition to asking Alena’s question about “the value of a space devoted solely to books,” we must ask how we might supplement our income while advocating for better, more deliberate financial models to support our work of creating singular bookstores for you, our community. As Alena so eloquently puts it,

"If, in order to survive as a store (that is, as a retail endeavor) a bookstore has to abandon more and more space to anything but books, why not instead abandon the retail ambitions of the store—keeping the books, and certainly still selling them—and establish a different structure, a different definition for ourselves?"

How might we redefine and support our work of providing a physical space to sell books—a bookstore whose holdings privilege scholarly, literary, beautiful, underrepresented, and enduring books? How might we do so without diluting our space or diverting our attention from the profession of bookselling? Is it possible to utilize the very skills that the professional bookseller deploys in their craft—filtration, selection, assemblage, enthusiasm—to generate income that would supplement our retail operation, so that you, the seasoned and committed reader, might continue to find on our shelves books that surprise, delight, and inspire?

We began to answer these questions in 2019 by becoming the first and only not-for-profit bookstore whose mission is bookselling. So many of you understand the great cultural and community value our bookstores provide—so much so that you convinced us that we must find an unorthodox model to support our unorthodox stores. Whereas other not-for-profits that run bookstores rely on revenue from those stores to help support their core mission, we are developing other endeavors—both financial and rhetorical—to support our ability to operate our bookstores.

To that end, and to take the next steps in what we started two years ago, I am tremendously excited to announce several new content initiatives, new services, and new opportunities for engagement, all of which, we expect, will help ensure a financially sustainable future without compromising our core mission or diluting our primary work.

We are thrilled to announce the launch of two publishing ventures. The first, Seminary Co-op Offsets, an imprint of Northwestern University Press, is a showcase for outstanding work in literature and the humanities, focusing on new translations, lost classics, out-of-print gems, and works highlighting the rich literary history of the South Side of Chicago. We will be announcing our inaugural title later this summer.

The second, Ode Books, an imprint of  Prickly Paradigm Press, whose late founder, Marshall Sahlins, was a long-standing champion of the Co-op, will celebrate book spaces and the book industry, publishing reflections on the cultural value of the book, analyses of the challenges that the industry faces, and ruminations on the intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic pleasures of reading. Ode Books will publish its first volumes in 2022. Authors currently under contract include Donna Seaman and Paul Yamazaki.

Both projects will draw on the bookstores’ commitment to championing books that endure and to advocating for the cultural work of bookselling.

Our podcast, Open Stacks, returns with a fourth season, in which we browse around our Front Table, cultivate lively discussion among authors, editors, publishers, and booksellers, and open up conversations about the role of the bookstore in the  21st century. 

We are excited to offer a more formalized consulting service, after years of one-off partnerships. We will provide our selection and curation services to a range of cultural and educational organizations whose missions complement ours. Drawing on our deep knowledge of foundational and pathbreaking works across many disciplines, we’ll help these institutions build collections that both reflect and strengthen their readership.

Our third round of subscription boxes left the store last month, and we’re pleased to say that the program is quickly gaining speed. For these bi-monthly boxes, our buyers select compelling, surprising, and accessible reads in nine different categories, with books headed all around the world. 

Lastly, we have been buoyed by the myriad ways you have supported our stores. Your financial support has been critical to ensuring our survival and will continue to be vital to our long-term success. Gifts to the Co-op allow us to continue to invest in the browsing experience. In addition, your financial support allows us to continue serving our communities near and far, by providing spaces and resources that foster conversation, combat ignorance, and advocate informed debate.

“The directions of inquiry abound,” writes Alena, “especially around the issue of value.” We are determined to follow the lines of inquiry which will help us deliberately build a model that will support the work of a community bookstore devoted to books and only books—one that will ensure that we persist for the next 60 years (and beyond!). “Good bookshops are questions without answers,” Jorge Carrión writes in his wonderful essay “That Conundrum We Call a Bookshop.” He continues:

"They are places that provoke you intellectually, encode riddles, surprise and offer challenges, hypnotize with that melody—or cacophony—which creates light and shadows, shelves, stairs, front-covers, doors opening, umbrellas closing, head movements indicating hello or goodbye, people on the move."

If we are successful in our inquiry, we will be able to provide you a space where you can follow your curiosity, that you might ask bigger and better questions—lines of inquiry so profound that it is the asking, not the answering, that ultimately matters.

Yours in Bookselling, 

Jeff Deutsch

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