This Side of Eden, the Ideal Bookstore Doesn’t Exist

Written by on August 2, 2022

When the book In Praise of Good Bookstores released earlier this year, I started hearing from bookish friends and customers of Hearts & Minds, the Pennsylvania bookstore my wife and I have run together for almost 40 years. They would send us links to an interview with the author, Jeff Deutsch, a bookstore manager himself.

For many, the conversation evoked memories and hopes of one of the great pleasures this side of Eden: browsing a well-stocked and interesting bookstore. Naturally, as a longtime bookseller, I shared the interview and devoured the book. But I’ll admit that Deutsch’s perspectives made me a bit uneasy, and I am still trying to decipher my curious reaction toward a book most friends figured I’d commend unreservedly. This side of Eden, few things are as simple as they seem.

Scale and status

In Praise of Good Bookstores gives a fascinating account of a former Jewish kid who grew up to love books and bookselling, and Deutsch waxes eloquent about the joy of connecting book and reader. He offers an intellectually stimulating essay that will appeal to those who like books about books, the reading life, and publishing-world curiosities.

For many CT readers, In Praise of Good Bookstores would no doubt fit seamlessly alongside such titles as Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well, Alan Jacobs’s Breaking Bread with the Dead, Jessica Hooten Wilson’s The Scandal of Holiness, and Claude Atcho’s Reading Black Books. Deutsch is as learned as any of those authors, and his obvious passion for books is contagious.

What makes Deutsch’s book stand out (despite an oddly tacky cover) is his status as a bookseller. Like the best of our trade, he is mostly self-taught and exceedingly eclectic in his reading habits, a practitioner of what John Milton called “promiscuous reading.” As the title indicates, Deutsch is offering not only a paean to the reading life, but also to the book-browsing life. In a real bookstore.

So, what’s not to love?

Well, for starters, I think I was jealous. As would be the majority of bookstore owners, booksellers, and frankly, bookstore fans. When Deutsch describes his well-stocked and eccentric store, the legendary Seminary Co-op, set in a tony neighborhood near Hyde Park in Chicago, it is at once charming, vast, busy with book-buying customers, and just a bit intimidating. Who are these apparently important authors of literature, philosophy, poetry, religion, economics, and history that roll off his tongue, whose signature volumes are readily available in his jam-packed store? And what kind of customers—besides the famous ones—buy these substantive books? How does the store afford all that space, all that inventory?

Most of us who run indie bookstores, frankly, are not surviving so well these days. And those of us offering uniquely christian literature are doing even worse. Deutsch properly resists overcommercializing the bookseller’s vocation, and he gives the obligatory nod to our famously low margins. He knows how hard it is to make a living selling the blocks of paper and ink that we so cherish. Since most booksellers are constrained by what is ingloriously called “the market,” they will be a bit demoralized by The Seminary Co-op’s remarkable inventory, scale, and status.

After all, Deutsch can manage a store that is so “impeccably curated” (as one admirer described it) in large part because of his prime location and exceptionally well-educated customer base. I love our ordinary folk in our ordinary small town and never cease to be amazed at what people do read, but the “good bookstore” that Deutsch celebrates is, well, not like most.

Truth be told, I’m also a little jealous that, in the store he manages, Deutsch carries very few items apart from the books themselves. A few decades ago, the major Family Book Stores chain rebranded itself as Family christian Stores to better reflect the range of products it was selling. Against that backdrop, the high-minded, bookish purity of the Seminary Co-op strikes me as nearly a prophetic witness against the shallowness and superficiality of our culture. Closer to home, the vision of a well-stocked bookstore evokes the tragedy of what Mark Noll famously named “the scandal of the evangelical mind.”

It’s no wonder there are very few evangelical-minded bookstores that offer anything even close to the sort of well-curated, stimulating, and artful selection praised by Deutsch; too many of our people seem not to have been taught or nurtured in their discipleship to be people of the book. Leave aside the odd ways in which evangelical christian authors (and their publishers and publicists) routinely promote Amazon, quickening the decline of the christian bookstore industry; the bigger issue is that many evangelicals would rather lay down their hard-earned cash for celebrity worship albums or self-help DVDs than browse the shelves of a serious bookstore.

In our store, for instance, we have large sections of books offering christian perspectives on nursing, engineering, art, business, education, law, media studies, and the like. Christ is, after all, Lord of these areas, and we are called to serve him in all that we do. The virtue of intellectual curiosity, particularly as it relates to the relationship between faith and public life, simply isn’t cultivated in most churches. I suspect many otherwise fine christian people would be bored in a reader’s paradise like the ones Deutsch describes.

At times, the grandness of In Praise of Good Bookstores inspired me to renew my vocational vows. Yet even as a bookseller of 40 years, there were moments that felt like reading an exotic ethnography of a rare tribe with exquisitely interesting customs and values in their exceptional habitat. Who are these strange people?

The slow browse

Despite its name, the beloved Seminary Co-op is no longer a seminary bookstore or even theologically oriented. Yet it’s hard to come away from In Praise of Good Bookstores without suspecting that Deutsch makes an idol out of books, learning, and the joy of human discovery.

I believe God honors the writing and reading of books (we are to love him with all our minds, after all), and the Bible affirms what some might call secular learning. Creation actually speaks, as Job 12 and Psalm 19 attest, so learning from good science and social science is a christian duty. “All truth is God’s truth,” as the late Wheaton College philosopher Arthur Holmes declared in a book by the same name. My wife and I have staked our livelihoods on that claim, despite the confusion it has caused some of our customers, who might wonder why a christian bookstore would carry books about film or art or environmental science or urban design.

Still, it is disconcerting when Deutsch calls his shop a “book-lined house of worship.” He insists that we “make our own canon” of essential books and, like his hero Walt Whitman, disapproves of submission to any deeper authority or tradition. As Whitman advised in a preface to his poetry collection Leaves of Grass, “Take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men.” He encouraged his readers to “re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book,” and “dismiss whatever insults your own soul.” Deutsch preaches this gospel of free inquiry, quoting Virginia Woolf’s counsel to “take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.”

For Deutsch, the bookstore offers a “spirit of freedom.” Well, sure. Nobody wants to be told what they have to think, and for all the churches fretting these days about the holdings of local libraries or the content of school curricula, few wise leaders want to get into the business of book-banning. Still, this “spirit of freedom” is only one way to think about books, one that prioritizes self-actualization and the cultivation of one’s individualized worldview.

It is fascinating (and ironic) that Deutsch was raised as a conservative Jew, and his book has glorious sections describing the communal reading habits at Shul and the celebrations of those who were learning together under the umbrella of a coherent religious tradition. My fear is that his upbeat celebration of the individual book buyer’s autonomy erodes the truths that matter most, leaving each reader to discover them on their own. The bookstore, on this model, is something like a cafeteria. Some serve better food than others, but the invitation is more or less identical: “Eat up! Enjoy whatever you want.”

And yet, the freedom-thinking extremes of Whitman or Woolf aside, Deutsch is doubtlessly noble in envisioning a well-stocked and curated store as a place for serendipity and discovery. In fact, he sounds almost neo-monastic in his observation that the best bookstores invite people to the best sort of browsing and bookish consideration, actually summoning forth a renewed view of time itself, about which he waxes almost spiritually. You don’t get this from one-click Amazon shopping or the cheapo remainder stores:

The good bookstore fosters the expenditure of a certain kind of time: the slow browse. It is the time we take, for instance, to single out which Clarice Lispector novel we would like to read next. Or the time we take when our eye is first caught by the curious cover of Saint Augustine’s Confessions on the front table, to read the jacket copy of the book and the first few pages: “Who will grant me repose?”

Deutsch continues with a long paragraph of other imagined curiosities (most almost laughably highbrow) found in a very good bookstore, nicely describing titles and authors the browser notices, the things she talks about with the bookseller behind the desk, and what said bookseller is most impressed by lately. It is all quite glorious, almost luminous. He evokes a sense of the holy, calling such moments “thin places.”

“Such discoveries take time,” he writes. “They happen by being in that space where we let ourselves submit to aimlessness. Sometimes the spine of a book will catch our eye as we are making our way to the register and we’ll grab it on impulse, then buy it on good authority of the bookseller.”

All of this assumes, of course, that browsers have the free time and disposable income for such unplanned purchases. And that the bookseller loves books and is as well informed as this studious, open-minded book buyer. At The Seminary Co-op Store, that may be the case. Not so, everywhere else.

Still, where there is conviviality among a group of browsers loyal to a team of wise booksellers in a given good place, something akin to community can emerge, and Deutsch cites older writers celebrating the bookshops that invite a commingling of various sorts of folks. He mentions a patron who reflects on the notable kindness found among the community of bookstore supporters.

We, too, have seen that; we are grateful to our own shoppers who have become, as one of our early slogans had it, “more than a customer.” I’m inspired when Deutsch writes, “It makes me happy to think of wandering through the aisles as a journey of kindness, one that takes us beyond the narrow limits of the self.” Yet this aspiration also strikes me as idealistic. We’ve seen ugly debates develop on site; even christian bookstores experience rudeness and dishonesty.

Even so, I don’t want to dismiss Deutsch’s celebration of the communities formed around bookstores. In her recent book Imagining Our Neighbors as Ourselves: How Art Shapes Empathy, Mary McCampbell explores how empathy develops, showing how narrative art—stories, poems, songs, movies, an

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