New Seminary Co-op director Jeff Deutsch talks about his life in books and the future of the beloved store.
Jeff Deutsch has been director of the Seminary Co-op a little over six months. He succeeded Jack Cella, EX’73, who retired in October 2013 after leading the bookstore for 43 years. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, Deutsch was previously director of the Stanford Bookstore Group. The Magazine’s interview with him is edited and adapted below.
Growing up, I was part of a Jewish community that basically lived to study. My grandfather was a great scholar and student who worked in a clothing store. He would work 10 hours a day, come home, have dinner with his family, and go out and study with the same group of men for 40 years. To witness this model of reverence for learning and a lifelong education made a big difference for me.
My sister [Erica Deutsch, AB’95] did her undergrad degree here in philosophy and I lived with her for winter quarter about 20 years ago. I got to know a little bit about the University and a little bit about Hyde Park, but what I really got to know well was the Co-op. I fell in love with the old space, and it was an oasis for me. I loved my experience at the bookstore, and it was a great place to get lost—and stay warm.
When I was weighing whether to come to what I think is the best bookstore in the world, I thought, I’m in one of the top five stores already, what’s the point? And the difference was in what the Seminary Co-op doesn’t have: a computer department, sweatshirts, school supplies. If I could focus on books exclusively—because that’s what I got into this for—then, I thought, there’s a purity to this that I’m really interested in.
I started July 1. The store is closed on the Fourth of July and my wife wasn’t in town. So I went in, put on some music, and went A to Z through fiction, alphabetizing, organizing, touching every book, seeing what authors might be missing that we should have. That quiet time meant a lot to me. It was amazing.
The first month I just listened. I met with a lot of people and really focused on getting input. I’m continuing to do that. It’s critical that any great bookstore reflects its community. That is something that Jack Cella and the booksellers here have done an exceptional job with—not just reflecting the community but almost creating the community.
There is a culture that’s been created where many people do not feel great about paying full price for a book. One challenge is that we are much more revered than we are shopped. There are a lot of people who think we’re great and then go buy their books elsewhere, or just don’t buy books. When some people hear that business is difficult, they’re shocked because we have such reverence. You can spend $18 on a 600-page novel that will give you two months’ worth of entertainment immediately and then a lifetime of reflection and pleasure. You and I were just in a café where we could have gotten two croissants and two coffees, spent $20, and wouldn’t have asked for a 30 percent discount, free shipping, and this, that, and the other thing.
Part of the journey
When people come through Hyde Park they spend time at the bookstore and, just like I did, fall in love with it. They take the character of Hyde Park and the character of the bookstore with them wherever they end up. I think that the Seminary Co-op and 57th Street Books connect them, very much like the Alumni Association. The act of buying a book from us is more meaningful than just buying a book—it’s a way to reconnect with Hyde Park and that time in their life, and what that represents about the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge.
On the nightstand
Right now I’m reading The Pound Era. I’ve loved every Hugh Kenner book I’ve read, but I’d never read his magnum opus. As a bookseller you’re kind of all over the place. I’m reading Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia on the side, and I’m spending a lot of time with Paul Valéry’s poetry—the verse poetry not the prose poetry.
The future is bright. Bookselling is alive and well, and the mission and character of these stores will persist. Whatever noise is happening in the world, there are these quiet places to reflect and to stand back, and we need them.