On the great balance sheet drawn up for digital culture noting its advantages and disadvantages, one item clearly on the debit side is what it has done to the bookshop, both the new bookshop and the used. America has never been overladen with bookshops, but today they have become even more scarce. Thank you, amazon.com, which has made it possible to purchase books quickly and often at impressive discounts. But if this is true, if Amazon has truly and sensibly supplanted the traditional bookshop, why bemoan the disappearance?

The problem is, it hasn’t, not really. I do not denigrate the online efficiency of amazon.com for purchasing new books, or Abebooks.com for purchasing used ones, but acquiring books off the Internet is not the same as shopping for them in stores filled with books. Acquiring a book online is a transaction. Buying one in a bookshop, a serious bookshop, is an experience. A big difference—and one, I fervently believe, that favors the bookshop. 


I was never in a bookshop before the age of 20. My happy boyhood, dominated by friends, sports, and movies, allowed little time for reading. In grade school I cheated on book reports, giving mine—on The Last of the Mohicans, David Copperfield, The Count of Monte Cristo—not from the reading of those thick tomes but from their Classic Comics versions. In high school, apart from assigned readings, most of which I found supremely boring, I chiefly read novels about slum and gang life: The Amboy Dukes, A Stone for Danny Fisher, Knock on Any Door, The Hoods. Devon Avenue, the shopping hub of the Jewish neighborhood of West Rogers Park in Chicago in which I grew up, had no bookshop. 

Americans, it turns out, have never been great readers. In “The Bookshop in America,” a 1963 essay, Edward Shils noted that in sample surveys on readership, “at any given time the United States is fairly far down on the list of literate countries as compared with the Scandinavian or the Low Countries or even England.” Shils added that “few universities have good bookshops within their environs, but for the most part college and university bookshops mainly carry textbooks.” As for the professoriate, “even university teachers, once they pass forty, are not heavy readers over a wide range of subjects.” Few professors, as I myself discovered from my time as a university teacher, read much outside their own academic specialties.

The bad news about the United States only gets worse. According to Jeff Deutsch, author of the recent In Praise of Good Bookstores, in 1994 there were 7,000 independent such shops in America; a quarter century later, that number had shrunk to 2,500, “and of those few bookstores left, even fewer sell books exclusively.” That was 2019. The number must be far lower today.

The first substantial bookshops I encountered were in Hyde Park, the neighborhood surrounding the University of Chicago, when I was a student there between 1956 and 1959. Along its main artery of 57th Street, Hyde Park had three used bookshops, and the university bookstore carried books by faculty and intellectual magazines. The Seminary Co-op Bookstore, housed in the basement of the university’s divinity school and likely the best academic bookstore in the world, was not founded until 1961. (For many years the Seminary Co-op was run by Jack Cella, a friend and a man whose astonishing competence was exceeded only by his impressive modesty.) My discovery of the serious bookshop was nicely coordinated with my discovery of the value of the reading life generally, the discovery that, through the agency of books, one could widen one’s perspective, expand one’s knowledge, and, yes, even deepen one’s experience, for to the serious reader, reading great books is itself a form of experience. 

Once my passion for reading had been ignited, bookshops, both new and used, held a certain magic for me, a magic that they have never lost. The dictionary meaning of serendipity is “the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.” Bookshops, I soon learned, are where one goes to have serendipity happen. On this point, Jeff Deutsch quotes the critic Geoffrey O’Brien, who in his book The Browser’s Ecstasy wrote: “The unread book is the life yet to be lived, the promise that there will be new ideas, images never glimpsed. The paradise of futurity is the thousand-page book full of episodes still to come.”

My haunting of bookshops took off in the early 1960s when I worked in New York at a magazine called the New Leader, whose offices were on 15th Street just east of Fifth Avenue. Make that, more to the point, just west of Fourth Avenue, which in those days housed an impressive array of used bookshops. At my lunch break, I wandered in and out of these shops like a half-drunk sailor freshly arrived in port. Often, I would leave my wallet in my desk at the New Leader, taking only five or six dollars with me lest I blow the better part of my week’s salary on books. 

The distinction between a collector and a connoisseur holds that a collector wants everything and a connoisseur only the best of things. In the realm of books, I never had the greedy impulse of the collector, but neither, in those early years, had I the subtle understanding required of the connoisseur. But browsing in serious bookstores over the years has, I like to think, turned me into a connoisseur of sorts. 

As Deutsch, who since 2019 has been the director of the Seminary Co-op Bookstores, reminds us, the essential bookshop experience is the browsing experience. Browsing, he writes, originally meant “to chew cud, to ruminate… to say it more directly, browsing is a form of rumination.” He sets out the many forms of bookstore-browsing and types of browser, characterizing each: the flaneur, the town crier, the ruminator, the pilgrim, the devotee, the palimpsest, the chef, the initiate, the stargazer, the general, and the idler. The ideal bookshop is one set up for easy browsing. When the Seminary Co-op Bookstore moved from its divinity-school location a block or so to the east, the new shop was designed for easy browsing by the famous architect Stanley Tigerman, himself a serious reader and a man who understood, Deutsch writes, “that the good bookstore is about interiority. Deep in the browse, many of us move through the space as though we were inside the Mind itself—of the universe or God, depending on one’s fancy. And many of us turn inward as we do so, finding the space especially conducive to self-reflection.” 

In my own browsing in bookstores, what am I seeking? No longer, like the librarians in Juan Luis Borges’s story “The Library of Babel,” the catalogue of catalogues, the book that will explain the mysteries of the world. What I seek, and often find, are books that I had not known about, or knew about only dimly, and that, once found (more often in used than in new bookshops), yield aesthetic pleasure, unsuspected knowledge, and the sense of getting perhaps just a touch wiser about the world. In a nearby bookstore I not long ago found such book, Rome and Pompeii, by a writer hitherto unknown to me named Gaston Boissier; more recently I discovered Talents and Geniuses, a book of essays by Gilbert Highet, a writer I had known about but had never read. (Each cost less than $5.) The possession of certain books, Petrarch held, “provokes in us a longing for others.” I have since acquired four more of Bossier’s books and three more of Highet’s. 

Which brings one to the difference between books in libraries and books in one’s personal possession. Deutsch maintains that “libraries do not replace bookstores but complement them.” Library books are of course on loan, and so must be read fairly quickly, whereas books one owns may be read at leisure, sometimes months, years, even decades after one has acquired them. Books one owns can also be marked up, left with notes inserted in them, treated as one’s property, which they are. “A certain intimacy is lost,” Deutsch notes, “when a book is unowned.” 

Deutsch denotes the differences between the selling of books and other commodities. He makes the point that, in a strict sense, books are not really commodities. He cites Lewis Hyde, who in his book The Gift makes the distinction between the commodity and the gift: “A commodity has value and a gift does not. A gift has worth.” One can put a price on a commodity by comparing it with other commodities, but one cannot put a price on a gift. Publishers need to put a price on an elegant translation of Dante, a new edition of Schopenhauer, the million-and-a-half words of Proust. Used-bookshop owners later put a lower price on them. But to their readers, these books, and others in their class, are priceless. 

Bookshops have a built-in inefficiency. They cannot be run like other businesses, not if they are to succeed in fulfilling the needs of their customers. Deutsch summarizes a study that sets out four rules a bookstore must observe if it is to succeed. First, “nearly 20 percent of a bookstore’s inventory must consist of products that are not books,” like greeting cards, mugs, calendars, coffee. Second, “the books that are carried must be chiefly purchased from major presses that offer higher gross margins than small, independent, and scholarly presses.” Third, “bookstores must leave books on their shelves no longer than four months.” Fourth, “bookstores must pay booksellers the wages of an entry-level retail clerk.” 

With the exception of the last item, a serious bookshop will adhere to none of these points. The Seminary Co-op, for example, carries a stock of roughly 100,000 books from all sorts of presses, carries books exclusively, and keeps books on its shelves much longer than four months. Deutsch reports that in the decade of the 2010s, “Seminary Co-op’s sales increased by 27 percent, but its bottom line remained steady: an annual deficit of approximately $300,000.” He adds that most bookstores retain books on their shelves for an average period of 132 days, whereas Seminary Co-op keeps its books for 280 days. Books do not sell the way other things do. Serious books await their buyers, and these are often notable for taking their time to show up. As Deutsch writes, “books require patience at every level… if we measure them alongside more ephemeral products, we will necessarily elevate books of moment over books of all time.”

All this makes one wonder why anyone would wish to run a bookstore. “The wonder is, given the unremunerativeness of the business, that bookshops exist at all,” Edward Shils wrote in his essay. “It takes a special kind of person, somewhat daft in a socially useful and quite pleasant way but nonetheless somewhat off his head, to give himself to bookselling.” The only commonality among bookshop owners I have known is their apparent pleasure in being in close proximity to books. Otherwise, they have been a most motley lot. 

One of the splendid used bookshops in Evanston was called Bookman’s Alley, the name deriving from its being located in an alley off the town’s main shopping street. It was run by a man named Roger Carlson, a former advertising-agency executive who, after fairly brief acquaintance, let one know he had had an alcohol problem. His demeanor was cheerful. His ample shop was decorated with military and athletic headgear and elegant tchotchkes. (Before he went out of business, to die soon after, I bought a small, white porcelain figurine of a couple in 18th-century garb—he standing playing the flute, she seated before a stand holding an open score playing the violin—which now sits in our living room.) Roger knew I was a writer, but, though our conversation always had an easy and pleasing flow, we never talked about books. But, then, oddly, few of the booksellers I have known seemed much interested in talking about books. 

Shils’s phrase “somewhat daft” doesn’t quite capture the two booksellers with whom I had fairly extensive dealings. “Quite daft” comes closer to it. The first, Stuart Brent (Brodsky), maintained a new bookstore along expensive Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Stuart was at least two stages beyond outspoken. I once entered his shop and asked how things were going with him. “How are they going?” he replied in a stentorian voice. “I’ll tell you how they’re going. The goyim are killing me.” By goyim I subsequently learned that he meant Waldenbooks, a shopping-mall book chain that he felt was taking business away from him. Not long after, the sales manager of W. W. Norton, in that day my publisher, asked me whether I knew Stuart Brent. When I said I did, he reported that the day before he had had a call from Stuart in answer to his message that Stuart was 90 days in arrears to Norton. 

“I’ll put a check in the mail tomorrow,” Stuart told him, adding, “By the way, it would help a great deal if you didn’t publish such sh—ty books.” 

Brent must have done well enough to pay the high rent on his Michigan Avenue shop. He special-ordered books for many of the psychoanalysts and psychiatrists in the neighborhood, men he treated with an easy contempt. I was in his shop one day signing copies of a recent book of mine when one of them, a youngish man, came in to pick up a book he had ordered. Stuart also handed him a copy of my book. “Here,” he said. “Read this. Maybe you’ll learn something.” Another time I was supposed to come to sign what Stuart said were 200 copies of a new book of mine. I told him I couldn’t make it until the following Monday and would call him back then. When I did, he said, “Don’t bother, I sold all 200 copies.” True? With Stuart, who knew? 

Truman Metzel ran Great Expectations Bookstore in the vicinity of Northwestern University. Heavy-set, slow-moving, Truman spoke carefully, his speech never quite free of a touch of pretension. Truman was said years before to have failed to complete a Ph.D. in philosophy under Richard McKeon, the editor of a complete edition of the works of Aristotle, at the University of Chicago. The city of Chicago in those days was said to have been strewn with academic corpses of graduate students who failed to complete their doctorates under the intellectual stringencies of Richard McKeon. Great Expectations was essentially an academic bookstore, heavily stocked with philosophy books. For a long while, on its front table was a book with the title Clarity Is Not Enough. I could never pass it without thinking, “But it’s a start.”

One day, Truman told me that the evening before he had kicked Saul Bellow out of his shop. Bellow had apparently asked about four or five novels that Truman did not carry. Finally, exasperated, Truman told Bellow, “Perhaps you would do better to take your custom elsewhere.” 

When I began teaching at Northwestern, I always ordered the books for my courses through Truman, thinking he could use the business. I also thought it would be useful for students to have the experience, however glancing, of a serious bookstore. Three of them complained to me that the owner of the shop put them off by his icy manner. In one of the courses I taught, two of the books for the course, both from the firm of Harcourt Brace, never arrived. I asked Truman about it. “Oh,” he said, “I fear there has been a bit of contretemps between the publisher and me over a bill.” The books never arrived, and I had radically to alter my course. Truman, naturally, never apologized. 

Today there is no Bookman’s Alley or Great Expectations in Evanston. What’s more, Borders and Barnes & Noble, which both had large stores in the center of town, are now also gone. A serious used bookshop called Amaranth remains, and so does a new one called Bookends and Beginnings. A store called Squeezebox, selling books and music and DVDs, remains in business. Stuart Brent Books long preceded its owner in death. 

Jeff Deutsch claims that his In Praise of Books is a celebration, not a lament. Yet lamentable the condition of the serious bookstore sometimes seems. One thinks of the grand bookstores of an earlier era that remain open: Blackwell’s in Oxford, Heffers in Cambridge, Rizzoli in New York (which closed its Park Avenue shop), Tattered Cover in Denver, City Lights in San Francisco. Has Amazon by now badly dented them, too? It seems unlikely that it hasn’t. 


Nothing presages a healthy future for the serious bookshop. Along with the incursions of Amazon, digital culture generally may already have had an even greater long-term effect in changing people’s reading habits. Reading on one’s phone or tablet or even computer is, somehow, different from reading the print in a book. A poem in pixels doesn’t seem like a poem at all. Then there are the nearly full-time distractions of social media. One goes online for information; one goes to books for knowledge. Style counts for little online; in a book it is of course often decisive. Impatient skimming rules online; one reads Thucydides, Pascal, Proust, Thomas Mann, and other writers of their stature at a rate of perhaps 15 or fewer pages an hour.

Does the doom of the bookshop really matter? After all, how many readers of the kind I have described as serious, to whom bookshops have traditionally catered, are there in America? These serious readers will doubtless survive without serious bookshops. But serious bookshops tended not only to the needs of serious readers; they also help to create future such readers, for from such shops one learns what is available in the larger world of literary and intellectual culture, and ends by becoming a serious reader oneself. 

Edward Shils noted that there are four chief means of education: that available in the classroom, that in serious magazines and newspapers, that in the conversation of intelligent friends, and that to be found in new and used bookshops. Bookshops, serious bookshops, have for me been such a means, a superior graduate school, one I had hoped all my days to attend. Now, alas, I am not so sure.

Photo: AP Photo/Richard Drew

We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link