Ask the Author | Jeff Deutsch

As Director of the Seminary Co-op Bookstores in Chicago, author Jeff Deutsch was inspired to write his new book ‘In Praise of Good Bookstores’ as a reflection on the importance of bookstores in the 21st century.


Contributed photo from Jeff Deutsch.

Anaka Sanders, Arts Reporter

Author and bookseller Jeff Deutsch is the Director of the Seminary Co-op Bookstores in Chicago, Illinois. The Seminary Co-op Bookstores are comprised of two independent bookstores, the Seminary Co-op, known for its academic book collections, and 57th St. Books, which houses a world-class children’s department. Deutsch helped incorporate them in 2019 as the first not-for-profit bookstore whose mission is bookselling. His new book “In Praise of Good Bookstores” was released April 5 and is a reflection on the importance of bookstores. Deutsch gave a reading and discussed the book at Prairie Lights on Nov. 16 in conversation with Co-owner Jan Weissmiller.

The Daily Iowan: What is your new book “In the Praise of Good Bookstores” about?

Deutsch: It’s a celebration of bookstores and it ultimately attempts to answer the question of, “Do we even need bookstores in the 21st century?” In the 20th century and prior, bookstores were meant to sell books, and most readers needed a bookstore to buy books.

But most readers don’t need a bookstore to buy books anymore. What do they then need a bookstore for? Looking at bookstores, through the lens of space, abundance, value, community, and time in the five chapters, I’m trying to gesture at some of the pleasures and uses of bookstores that might not be readily apparent to someone who doesn’t spend their days thinking about this in a bookshop for 30 years now.

DI: Why do you think bookstores are important?

Deutsch: I think there are a number of primary functions of a good bookstore. I think the product is less about the books than the browsing experience. The experience that the reader has when they enter the confines of the bookstore — wandering the stacks, engaging with different books, having a tactile relationship to the books, but also the peripheral vision, becoming important — that experience and what happens when a reader communes with a collection is something of tremendous value.

There’s also a value in the community that physical space creates. There are things like author events and other intentional community-building endeavors, but even just the existence of the collection itself, and the space where people come to think about literature and books, is its own community-building endeavor.

DI: You spoke at Prairie Lights on Nov. 16 with Co-Owner Jan Weissmiller. What was one important topic that you took out of the conversation?

Deutsch: First of all, Prairie Lights is an absolute gem of an institution and Iowa City is so lucky to have Prairie Lights. In fact, there was a gentleman there, whose name is David Hamilton, who was the editor of the Iowa Review for 30-plus years, who told me that Prairie Lights is the summit of Iowa City. I liked that idea because if it’s a summit then it’s something that everybody in the town can see for miles. That was really beautiful. I was moved by the crowd, and how many people came to share their enthusiasm for Prairie Lights and the Seminary Co-Op, which is a store that I operate, and other bookstores and to share their experiences of what happens to them as they browse the stacks of good bookstores.

DI: What’s the most valuable piece of advice that you’ve ever been given about writing?

Deutsch: I think the most valuable advice I’ve received is that great readers become great writers, and all of us do our best to digest what we take in. With any nourishment, taking in the finest ingredients that you can find, and really trusting your sensibility to lead you to the finest ingredients is critical for health. Similarly, when I am in a rut writing, I know that I can call on some of my favorite writers to at least inspire me to see my way through a project.

DI: What’s next for you?

Deutsch: I’m definitely continuing to tour and support this book. In the new year, I’m going to go to India to continue the global part of the tour. I was in Europe last month, and really spread this message as widely as possible. I’m deeply committed to the advocacy work around bookstores. So, the book is really one element for me of trying to change the conversation about what bookstores are capable of and how we might be able to finance them in the 21st century which might be different from the 20th century.

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