Running a great bookstore is hard. Running one as a community answerable to 50,000 members around the world? Harder still. And so when Seminary Co-op Bookstores Director Jeff Deutsch outlined the workings of one of the world’s great bookselling operations, it seemed a message worth sharing. The sentiment therein will be familiar: it’s important to support the cultural institutions that you value. Seminary Co-op is one that we value deeply.
We, the owners of the Seminary Co-op and 57th Street Books, know better than anyone that ours are cultural institutions worthy of preservation and celebration. Our shared ownership is one of the elements which make the stores so special.
We are currently celebrating our 55th anniversary. In that time, the Co-op has grown from three members to well over 50,000 members; from one store to two, to three, and back to two; from $26k in annual sales, to nearly $10 million, and back down to $3 million. While much has changed over the last five and a half decades, the commitment to an exceptionally curated inventory, and to our remarkable community, has not.
In the last couple of years, I have had the privilege of meeting many of you and listening to your ideas, concerns, and expressions of reverence for these stores, and while there is much to celebrate and much to revere, the truth is that the Seminary Co-op bookstores continue to face very difficult financial times: we have a six-figure annual operating deficit and are working tirelessly to bridge that gap without compromising the character of the store.
Some, however, may wonder why we continue to struggle, given the support of our community. Plenty of bookstores today are surviving and even thriving against the odds, employing well-worn principles of commerce to ensure there is a profit on the bottom line. Let me tell you a little about what we do behind the scenes at the Co-op to build the stores you love, and why it is not so simple to apply these principles here.
Our goal is to provide a place where informed readers can still find books that surprise, challenge, delight and impress; where the most seasoned of readers can once again feel a sense of wonder in discovering a book; where our communities can come together over a shared recognition of the insight and fulfillment that knowledge, ideas, and literature provide.
As buyers and curators, we look at over 25,000 new books every year, carefully considering which to bring in. We stock approximately 100,000 titles, with publication dates ranging across centuries. On any given day we sell anywhere from 200 – 1,000 books. Of those, up to 75% are single copies of books. Some we sell just once a month, once a quarter, once a year, or once every other year. This means that, from a purely profit-driven perspective, we stock books we “shouldn’t”. But that’s not the way it feels to us or to our customers, who find that one copy on the shelf, the one they’ve been looking for for years, or had never known they needed, and that will nourish them for years to come.
Our stores are, collectively, one-of-a-kind. But candidly, others have not adopted our business model precisely because it privileges the love of learning over the bottom line. And so if we were just a business – and not a cultural institution – we wouldn’t be worth saving. We would have gone under five or ten years ago and only a few nostalgic readers would have noticed.
If we were to seek counsel from consultants, they would advise on “efficiencies” and “best practices”. If we adopted them, we would only carry titles that sell well on the principle that a book must earn its spot on the shelf – its “real estate” – by “turning over” or selling multiple times a year. This is good business, and a model that will lead to a strong bottom line. Indeed, many bookstores effectively outsource their buying to national wholesale distributors, asking them to send a smattering of their bestselling volumes across categories. This creates a model of efficiency at the expense of thoughtful curation, a model that is the antithesis of everything we believe about the profession of bookselling.
To this end, allow me to quote Jonathan Lear, esteemed philosopher, Director of the Neubauer Collegium and longtime Seminary Co-op member. “Of one thing I am certain: as soon as a committee insists that the Seminary Coop adhere to ‘best practices’ we are at most one generation away from the institution’s demise. ‘Best practices’ is the third to the last thing the Seminary Coop says before giving up the ghost to Amazon.com. If the Seminary Coop is to survive into a new generation, if it is to flourish, it will, among other things, have to have many books on its shelves that no ‘best practice’ would ever allow.”
Inefficiency has its place. In raising children, in most artistic endeavors, and in bookselling, a modicum of inefficiency is in order.
This doesn’t mean that we want to be inefficient in the wrong ways, or for the wrong reasons. We want to run this “foolish” business with intelligence and savvy. If we raise our topline sales – our overall sales volume – we will be able to do so with a modest increase in operating costs, as we will be able to scale some of our processes. We need growth to help us maintain the qualities that are extra-economic.
I believe, firmly, that our best days are ahead. This is not crude optimism. There are good reasons for this belief. In the fiscal year that is closing at the end of June, our sales results will have increased for the first time since the 1990s. Our losses are slowly declining, and we have a multi-year plan to ensure we achieve complete self-sufficiency by the end of the decade. Equally important, I believe in our bright future because of our booksellers, and because of you, our membership. This store made its reputation on the curatorial art of bookselling. Jack Cella and the many fine booksellers who have worked at the Co-op and 57th Street Books over the years were masters of this. This is what is worth preserving, and this is what will help us see our way through these difficulties. While the world can do without these stores, it is not a world in which any of us wants to live.
We will continue to be ambassadors on behalf of these bookstores and what they represent, but we need your help. I am asking for your assistance as ambassadors, as advocates and as owners. What does this mean? It’s very simple: buy a book and convince others to do the same. If every current member bought one additional book from us this year and then convinced a friend, family member or colleague to do the same, we would double our sales and nearly eliminate our operating deficit. I am asking you to advocate on behalf of this business with the same passion that you would if you were the sole owner.
I look forward to continuing the dialogue between the stores and our owners. If you have ideas, feedback, concerns, book recommendations, or any other opinions that will help support our mission, please know that I am always available and would relish the dialogue.
Yours in bookselling,
Director, Seminary Co-op Bookstores, Inc.