I am not so audacious as to claim there’s a single quality that weaves together all of us who love literature—readers, writers, booksellers, publishers, librarians, to name just a few. But whatever list of qualities we may come up with to describe everyone under the umbrella of books, high on that list would be discernment. A keen eye and spirit is necessary for deciding what words and observations will make it onto the page, what books make it onto a bookstore’s shelves, and what books are subsequently plucked off those shelves once the idea of reading them has ripened in a readers’ mind.
Discernment has been central to Jeff Deutsch’s literary life. At The Seminary Co-op, a legendary bookstore on the South Side of Chicago where Deutsch serves as the director, you’ll find a wide ranging yet intentionally selected collection of books, from volumes from the Loeb Classical Library, contemporary and classical fiction and poetry, to serious studies in economics, history, and religion. In In Praise of Good Bookstores, a hybrid work of memoir and manifesto that puts forward a platonic ideal of the bookstore, he builds his vision with reference points that range from Italo Calvino to Martin Buber.
A keen eye for curating and marshaling books defines Deutsch’s work. And this past February, in partnership with Parneshia Jones—a poet and the director of Northwestern University Press—he launched a new project that is animated by that same spirit of discernment and enthusiasm: Seminary Co-op Off-Sets, a publishing imprint with Northwestern University Press that aims to be a “showcase for outstanding work in literature and the humanities, focusing on new translations, lost classics, out-of-print gems, and works highlighting the rich literary history of the South Side of Chicago.”
The key to understanding the vision and mission of Seminary Co-op Off-Sets is in its first publication: a reissue of the 1992 novel Divine Days by Leon Forrest. “We were trying to get Divine Days and we weren’t sure if we could,” Deutsch told me over coffee this past January. “And I unequivocally said if we don’t get Divine Days, we’re not doing the imprint. And it has to be the first book because it signals more than any other book what we’re trying to do.”
Divine Days is Leon Forrest’s magnum opus, a book that is at once sprawling—the reissue is 1140 pages—yet highly particular in its musical incorporation of the myriad of influences that inspired Forrest’s writing. The book takes place over a week in Forrest County, a fictionalized place largely resembling the South Side of Chicago. The narrator, Joubert Jones, is an aspiring playwright who has recently returned from war. What follows is an epic that follows Jones across the week as he narrates his accounts with an expansive cast of characters—from mystics to drunkards, to preachers and hustlers, all who have a distinct, jazzy orality which Forrest brings to life on the page.
In the preface, Zachary Price, an assistant professor of performance studies in the Department of Drama and a core faculty member in the Department of African American Studies at the University of California, Irvine, describes the book as a “creolization of genres, forms, voices, memories, and experiences, what Forrest referred to as ‘the mythos of gump’ literature that was at the heart of the African American experience.” And the experiences that Forrest had to draw upon are many: he grew up in the South Side of Chicago and graduated from Hyde Park High School and the University of Chicago; he was drafted to the military and served in the US Army for two years during the Vietnam War; he was an editor for Muhammad Speaks, the newspaper of the Nation of Islam; his first two books were edited by Toni Morrison and he counted Morrison, James Baldwin, August Wilson, and Ralph Ellison among his friends; and in addition to being a playwright novelist, he was professor in the English and African American Studies departments at Northwestern University.
Prior to leading The Seminary Co-op, Deutsch was the director of Stanford University’s bookstores. When he accepted the role at The Seminary Co-op nine years ago and planned his move to Chicago, he was searching for books to read about the city.. Divine Days was the number one book on a list and it left a lasting impression on him.
“For me, it’s one of my favorite novels I’ve ever read, full stop. When you get into the ambition of it, but also the humanity of it, and also the joy of it, and how perceptive he is, and how playful he is with language… it really just goes deep into the soul,” said Deutsch.
Also key to understanding the new imprint is its partnership with Northwestern University Press, and what this partnership enables them to do. The imprint is run on a non-profit model, empowering Deutsch and Jones to make publishing decisions that are not driven by market forces but by the mission they’ve set out for the press. Additionally, they’re not bound by the breathless publishing cycle that most major publishing houses run on, which gives books 30 to 90 day cycles to sell before they move on to their next project. All books published with Seminary Co-op Offsets also go through the peer-review process that all books published with university presses go through, putting their works and publishing decisions into a larger conversation with scholars and experts in the field. The result is an imprint that essentially bypasses the market forces that reduce books to just another commodity available in the marketplace; an imprint that mirrors the intentional, thoughtful experience and enthusiasm of readers themselves.
Carving a new path is central both to Divine Days and the new imprint itself.
“The trickster figure that he writes about captures the essence of how, in the preacher-as-trickster—and he attributes this to Chicago, in particular—the ability to reinvent ourselves, and the way in which we can be redeemed, and reinvented and reborn,” Deutsch said.
In addition to how deeply the book is rooted in Forrest’s experience of the South Side of Chicago, its musicality, and significance in 20th century literature, what makes the selection of Divine Days particularly fitting as the inaugural publication of the Seminary Co-op Offsets imprint is that the book, when originally published in 1992, was launched at 57th Street Books, a store that forms half of the The Seminary Co-op Bookstores.
The new publication of Divine Days with Seminary Co-op Offsets sets the tone for an imprint focused on commit to quality production and peer review for books that will be published in perpetuity, slowly and deliberately; an imprint that is at once rooted in a tangible bookstore community in Chicago yet also serves and inspires readers all around the world; an imprint that is solely for the love of and commitment to books.
“So it’s not even about publishing,” says Deutsch. “It’s about finding these books, falling in love with them, and then trying to share that enthusiasm with readers.”
By Leon Forrest
Published February 15, 2023
Farooq Chaudhry is a writer and editor based in Chicago. He currently serves as a Daily Editor for the Chicago Review of Books. You can find him on Twitter at @spilledchai_.