It seems I have gone a quarter century without understanding something very important—definitive, even—about Amazon.com. The founder, Jeff Bezos, did not launch the site out of any particular interest in books, only to see it grow and diversify its way into what it is today—namely, the world’s largest department store. That was how things looked to a customer, but an interview he gave in 1997 reveals otherwise. What drew his attention, rather, was the fact that, as he said, “There are more items in the book category than there are items in any other category by far.”
Create an online vending platform able to handle that kind of inventory, and the world’s your oyster. Seldom a profitable undertaking in any case, bookselling was effectively a way to attract eyeballs and build the brand. And that explains a lot. Do a search for “oyster” on Amazon—taking care to limit the search to the books department—and you will be offered not just biological studies, collections of recipes and the occasional reference work on aphrodisiacs, but also a clam and oyster knife shucker set with stainless steel seafood opener tool, wood handle and gloves (at a surprisingly low price), as well as cans of oyster-hued paint and diaries with cover graphics inspired by the band Blue Öyster Cult. To be fair, most of the results are in fact books of some sort, although their relevance to the search term is often tenuous at best. The publisher’s description of a book subtitled A Dark Mafia Romance gives no reason to expect substantial oyster-related content.
Looking for books amid such a mercenary chaos is the exact opposite of the experience of browsing that Jeff Deutsch celebrates in In Praise of Good Bookstores, published by Princeton University Press. Deutsch is director of Chicago’s famous Seminary Co-op bookstore (as everybody calls it, though the official name is the Seminary Co-op Bookstores Inc.), which has survived the online-retail onslaught somehow, despite stocking a deep backlist of literary and scholarly titles that sell slowly and often in minuscule quantities. “Of the 28,000 titles the Seminary Co-op sold in 2019,” Deutsch writes, “nearly 17,000 were single copies. In other words, each of those 17,000 books was sought by a unique reader.”
In Praise is not a memoir of the author’s professional life, nor a history of the co-op (founded in 1961) as an institution. And while there are moments of philippic against Amazon, most of Deutsch’s anger is directed into more productive uses. What’s done is done. The issue is how to preserve and cultivate whatever stretches of rain forest Bezos has not burned to the ground.
That requires more than praise for good bookstores. Without pushing the rain forest analogy too hard, I think of Deutsch as a kind of environmentalist, defining and defending the ecosystem required to sustain the well-being of people for whom reading is a vital necessity—a way of being in the world. “While bookstores are no longer the most efficient or, perhaps, cost-effective method of procuring specific books,” he writes, “the selling of books has always been one of the least interesting services that bookstores provide. The value is, and has always been, at least in the good and serious bookstores, in the experience of being among books—an experience afforded to anyone who enters the space with curiosity and time.”
In other words, bookstores enable (and in the best cases encourage) browsing. The word implies a kind of unstructured use of time that should not be confused with carelessness or a lack of consequence. He writes, “While an algorithm might suggest a book that we are likely to enjoy based upon who we’ve been, or what an advertiser might want us to think we want, nothing can replace the work of browsing to help us discover who we are or who we might become.”
It is the bookseller’s vocation (using that term as a seminarian might) to establish optimal conditions for coming across a book for which the reader is not necessarily looking. Serendipity cannot be willed, but a dedicated bookstore keeper helps it along through “filtration, selection, assemblage, and enthusiasm,” as Deutsch puts it.
The author refers to the staff of good shops as “book professionals”—a category that would subsume editors and librarians as well, and perhaps even reviewers. Book professionals are, he says, “readers of reading,” which in the case of running a bookstore requires a special kind of social finesse: the ability to let browsers do their own exploring without interruption while also being suitably conversational, when the customer wants it.
The skill set is rare, and bookstores’ precarious economic status discourages its cultivation. Deutsch mentions that when he began working in bookstores, in 1994, an estimated 7,000 bookstores were operating in the United States. Amazon opened for business the same year. By 2019, there were just 2,500 stores. (The decline was not caused solely by competition from the online retailer, of course. The rise of Borders drove many local stores under, and the chain’s collapse did not inspire new ones to spring up.) The last pre-pandemic year was also when the Seminary Co-op made its transition from being a customer-run cooperative to its current status as a nonprofit, after more than two decades of running at a large deficit.
Which is not to say that turning a profit is now impossible. Deutsch sums up what market forces currently demand of a shop: “Nearly 20 percent of a bookstore’s inventory must consist of products that are not books,” he writes. “The books that are carried must be mostly purchased from major presses that offer higher gross margins than small, independent, and scholarly presses. Bookstores must leave books on their shelves no longer than four months. Bookstores must pay booksellers the wages of an entry-level retail clerk.”
Browsing is not precluded by the all-in-one, books-and-oyster-shucking-equipment model of brick-and-mortar bookshop, of course. But it is an inefficient phase of the transaction, contributing nothing to the vendor’s bottom line. Deutsch advocates another way of reckoning the value added by intelligent booksellers and insists that it is time to develop new ways of keeping their doors open. Exactly how is another matter. The Seminary Co-op’s metamorphosis into a nonprofit is presumably relevant but not something he treats as a blueprint.
“To be clear,” he writes, “the bookstore is not a place for everything. It is not the internet, wherein every idea or thought is given its space, regardless of quality, hatefulness, or mendacity. The selections of the bookseller must filter for quality and a certain set of standards—of course, what we exclude is as meaningful as what we include—that help create a discourse that is inclusive, intellectually honest, and cognizant of the multiple ways in which materials are used in the wide-ranging intellectual life.”
Like clear air, or potable water, the enabling conditions for certain kinds of attention are easy to take for granted—until they start to run out.