By SAMANTHA SMYLIE
The Seminary Co-Op bookstores — made up of the Seminary Co-Op on 57th Street and Woodlawn Avenue and 57th Street Books on the corner of 57th Street and Kimbark Avenue — is now a not-for-profit organization, making it one of the first in the country to focus solely on bookselling.
On Oct. 5, Jeff Deustch, director of the Seminary Co-Op Bookstores, made the announcement in a letter to the public that details the transition of the bookstore from a co-operative model to a not-for-profit model.
“We have known for a long time that we are not in it for the money. The Co-Op model was set up to pay dividends to individual shareholders when we made profits,” Deutsch explained when asked why the bookstores financial model changed. “Since we are a not-for-profit, we haven’t paid shareholders in 25 years. Rather than trying to fix that problem, we recognized that it is not a problem. Actually, what we exist for is to create cultural value by creating a browsing experience.
“The Co-Op and 57th Street Books are there to create browsing experiences, to build a place for discovery, a place to get lost among the stacks, a place to develop and seek curiosity and a place where the most seasoned reader can find something to delight them, to surprise them, to nourish them.”
The shareholders of the co-op — 78 of them — were active participants in the change as they voted unanimously in May to support the decision of the bookstores’ board to consider a not-for-profit model and execute a transition. They will experience little to no change from the transition.
The Board had weighed numerous factors including the financial burden of running a bookstore during the rise of Amazon and decreasing number of independent bookstores around the country, but those were not key elements in the decision. Actually, the bookstores’ sales grew by 8.7% last year and have grown by 31% in the last five years, according to Deutsch. However, the board’s decision to change the financing model is an effort to keep the mission of the bookstores alive and thriving.
“It was a recognition after years of conversations of ‘why are we here and what model makes sense for us?’ It’s really thinking about the future. ‘What will it mean to be a bookstore in 2030? 2040? 2050? When we celebrate our centennial in 2061, what will bookselling look like?’ Our goal is to celebrate our centennial and beyond,” said Deustch.
When asked if this could be a trend for bookstores around the country, Deutsch said, “It’s an experiment for us. We think it is the best way forward for us and we think we will thrive. It would be very nice if, in 5 years, there are 50 stores like ours throughout the country and every city that wants a store like ours can have one and that it is not about an individual opening a bookstore as a retail operation in order to make a profit. I’m not opposed to that, but there is another model that is about the browsing experience, the cultural work that we do and that there is a model for the community that wants those bookstores.”
For the future of the bookstores, Deustch would love to place 20,000 more books on the shelves and professionalize bookselling. He said, “I would love to treat our booksellers, financially, with the professionalism that they deserve. Part of this model is to help shift the conversation about what booksellers are and what they do. The retail model does not treat employees with the same professional remuneration that we see in nonprofits and other cultural work. Not that there is a tremendous amount of money there, we’re just talking about respectful compensation.”
For patrons of the bookstores, there will not be any changes to the experience of exploring the bookshelves at the Co-Op or discovering a new book at 57th Street Books. Currently, Deutsch is reading “All About Love” by bell hooks and recommends “Gravity and Grace” by Simone Weil to those looking for a new read —both books can be found at the bookstores.