In 51 years, no concussions. Despite low-hanging pipes that loop across ceilings and snake down walls, work spaces with clearances barely 5 feet high, and a tight maze full of blind spots where customers could easily collide — the Seminary Co-op Bookstore never logged a major injury, said its general manager, Jack Cella, who has worked there more than 40 years and conscientiously padded the danger zones.
Far more common at the Hyde Park bookstore were Nobel Prize winners waiting in line alongside college freshmen. Grad students who came back decades later elated to find their own books displayed on the prestigious front table. Best-sellers that might not top the list at any other bookstore, such as Michele Lamont's "How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment."
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When the Seminary Co-op closed its doors Nov. 11, preparing to move from the basement of the Chicago Theological Seminary at 5757 S. University Ave., where it resided for the past half century, to a new location nearly three times larger a block away, the people who made it such a beloved institution in Hyde Park and at the University of Chicago promised to go with it.
And yet the move from the quirky cave roused nostalgia among the many lovers of the co-op, which made no fanfare over closing weekend but received a steady trickle of well wishers.
"I came to say goodbye," Marshall Sahlins, Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and of Social Sciences at the University of Chicago, said on closing day as he stood by the shelves lined with the intellectual pamphlets from Prickly Paradigm Press, of which he is the executive publisher. "We'll miss it for its clutter. But all that clutter is not gold."
Sahlins approached Cella at his cramped desk under low wooden beams, where he was working as though it were a day like any other, and asked to buy 20 more shares in the co-op as a show of support.
"I'm just feeling nostalgic," said Sahlins, a member since the 1970s. "It's the best bookstore in the world. You can quote me on that and try to prove me wrong."
Kevin Huigens, a member of the co-op since his days as a student at the university, had dug up his original 1978 membership certificate and brought it with him as he and his wife made their final rounds through the stacks.
"It's very sad," said his wife, Anne Marie Crowe, who said she would miss the "unique environment." "I love medieval history, and when you're in that corner it feels like you're in the catacombs."
The bookstore reopens in the new location, at 5751 S. Woodlawn Ave., on Wednesday. To mark the move, it has invited authors to lead a one-block procession from the old location to the new one, carrying their most recent books to be displayed on the front table. The light-hearted book parade is scheduled for 11 a.m. Monday, accompanied by bagpipes, hot chocolate and coffee.
Employees look forward to the next chapter. But many co-op fans can't help but look back, perhaps none more so than former University of Chicago students Jasmine Kwong and Megan E. Doherty.
Since March, Kwong and Doherty have been documenting the life of the bookstore through photographs and interviews with employees and members, compiling them at semcoop-project.org. So far 150 people have participated.
Both Kwong and Doherty say they were "motivated by a sense of loss." Their memories are vivid of what it was like to descend from the gothic stone lobby to discover a literary labyrinth with 160,000 books — 120,000 distinct titles — stuffed into every corner, as classical music drifted through the stacks.
"It's like Christmas," Kwong said.
"It's like a candy store for adults," said Doherty.
"The University of Chicago is about the life of the mind," Doherty continued, "and if you think about what it would be like to be in one of those minds, I think of the bookstore."
Kwong, who got her undergraduate degree in psychology at the university and now works in a psychology lab at the Booth School of Business, and Doherty, who got her master's and Ph.D. in the philosophy of religion at the Divinity School, did not know each other before launching the project. Kwong had an idea to showcase photographs of the bookstore at the university's annual Festival of the Arts when she came across an article Doherty had written about the bookstore for Gapers Block. She sent her an email and they agreed to collaborate.
They have since presented three exhibits of the Seminary Co-op Documentary Project, displaying photographs and excerpts from their interviews: Cella remembering Saul Bellow wandering into the stock room and shocking an employee to the point of tears; assistant manager Heather Ahrenholz describing the Dominican Republic president's penchant for the economics section.
Stacks of fill-in-the-blank fliers on a stone bench outside the old bookstore invited passersby to write their own sentiments. Says one, filled out by a prestigious economist who served on President Barack Obama's cabinet:
THINKS THE SEMINARY CO-OP IS
THE LAST MAGICAL PLACE IN THE WORLD
In addition to the website, Kwong's and Doherty's project will eventually live in the University of Chicago Library's Special Collections Research Center, along with old photographs and postcards sent to co-op employees from members around the world (one, mailed from Syria, wishes the gang happy holidays). They hope one day to write a book.
"I would just like for people 50 to 100 years from now to see what this place was like," Doherty said.
It is worth reiterating, given all this mourning, that the Seminary Co-op is not closing. It is moving one block east and taking its values and cherished employees and members with it.
The shop will lose some of its eccentricities.
No more Smurf-blue pipes. No more turning a corner to run into the "Orgoblow," a mechanical bellows that once powered an organ a few floors up. No more stooping under the particularly low rafters of an office space nicknamed the "Napoleon Room."
But it will gain some important upgrades. Take, for example, the climate control system, a giant rumbling contraption that had been squeezed between Shakespeare and Sontag. It had only two settings — winter and summer — and managed during both the hottest and coldest months to keep the shop above 90 degrees.
"I think a lot of customers who are really nostalgic about it are in here for an hour at a time," said Ahrenholtz, who started working at the bookstore as a University of Chicago undergrad and has been there 21 years. "Having spent so many years down here, I don't really know what light during the day looks like."
The new space, located on the first floor and a portion of the basement of McGiffert House, next door to Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, will for the first time expose the bookstore to natural light, have handicap accessibility and be visible to passersby on the street. That may take away from its underground charm, but with the Internet nabbing the bookstore's customers, especially for textbooks, the co-op wants all the eyeballs it can get.
"We're known as a hidden gem," Cella said. "At this stage, that has not been good for sales."
Cella, who started working at the co-op in 1968 while he was a graduate student at the Divinity School, said what sparks his nostalgia far more than the space are the fascinating people who have passed through it. Though Cella is roundly hailed for his thoughtful selection of books, catering to both the world's foremost scholars as well as novices who can't pronounce their names, he says often it's customers who recommend books to him.
The mutual loyalty runs deep. Cella recalls getting a visit from the widow of a Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist who had wished that some of his ashes be scattered at the co-op. Cella had them sprinkled on the front lawn.
"I think of him literally every day," said Cella, who plans to take a scoop of that dirt to the new co-op location.
Sitting on a step-ladder in front of the section on anthropology and the history of religion, in a room further downstairs than the basement, Matthew Christian recalled his own intimate relationship with the co-op. Christian, an associate dean at the University of Chicago, worked at the co-op after grad school, helped build its bookshelves and met his wife there.
As he leafed through "The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico," written by colleague Joseph Masco, Christian expressed cautious optimism about the move.
"I think I'm excited," he said. "It's hard to know exactly what it will be."
Others are more torn.
Angelica Cibrian, who has worked at the co-op for six years, said she's excited about temperature control and she won't miss the bugs.
But she's attached to the old, cozy, lived-in feel.
As closing day neared, Cella said it seemed every second customer came armed with a camera, as though they were making "a final pilgrimage."
"They ask, 'Is it still going to feel really cramped and like books are going to fall on top of you?'" Cella said — the hope being that it will.
The goal was to design the new shop so that it still feels like a serendipitous stumble into new ideas, Cella said. Just without actually bumping into anything.
Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz is a Chicago Tribune lifestyles writer.
"I have been fortunate to encounter some affirmative moments in my academic career. But I never, ever expected to reach The Pinnacle of Academic Achievement: having one's book featured on the front table of the Seminary Co-op bookstore."
— John G. Stackhouse Jr., Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C. Got his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago's Divinity School in 1987.
"There are bookstores you can rely on to have what you're looking for, and there are those which you can rely on to have what you didn't even know you were looking for but definitely need. The co-op is in the rarefied latter group."
— Jess Stephens, finance and project manager at the University of Chicago's Reva & David Logan Center for the Arts. Graduated from the University of Chicago in 2005.
"Every so often the President of the Dominican Republic shows up. This place is a nightmare for his secret service! He comes in with an entourage, and ships a couple thousand worth of books back to the Dominican Republic. He cleans out our economics section."
— Heather Ahrenholz, assistant manager of the Seminary Co-op Bookstore.
"No matter how much you think you know, all you have to do is look at the shelf in any good bookstore and you realize how little you've read. The more you read, the more you realize what you don't know. That's the interesting thing about it."
— Jack Cella, general manager of the Seminary Co-op Bookstore.
"The idiosyncrasies of its current location always announced to me that the co-op, its directors, employees and habitués care only — and intensely — about books, which as far as I'm concerned makes them candidates for sainthood."
— Bruce Lincoln, Caroline E. Haskell Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions in the Divinity School. Member of the co-op since 1971.
"I always had to duck my head to consult the linguistics section, but I never cared. The Seminary Co-op spoiled me for all other bookstores."
— Tim Allen, co-op member since 2002. Graduated from the University of Chicago in 2006.
"The co-op is the intellectual core of the University of Chicago; all roads lead to it. It's one of Chicago's unique gems housed in perhaps the city's most civilized basement. I will miss the vaulted ceilings of the Chicago Theological Seminary lobby and the narrow stairway leading down to the bookstore. It's one of my favorite places in the whole world and one of the first places I take out-of-towners when they visit my city.
— Michael B. Hefter, co-op member since 1992.
"It's as if the books were already there, firmly planted in their rightful spot, and suddenly a building erupted around them. But rather than supplant the books, the building decided to work with the books and have a symbiotic relationship. It's as if it grew around the tomes of knowledge, integrating itself by weaving and threading its way through the volumes of pulp and ink. They co-exist in harmony, waiting to be discovered by us.
— Matthew Keesecker, visited the store once.
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