Oct. 4, 2001
Vol. 21 No. 2

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    After 40 years, Seminary Co-op’s inventory continues to lure

    By Josh Schonwald
    News Office

    [co-op bookstore] by jason smith

    The ashes of at least one of the University’s Nobel Prize-winning physicists were scattered on its front lawn. A president of this University once said the loss of any single member of the faculty would be preferable to the loss of this establishment’s manager.

    What started simply––14 people pitching in $10 each to get 100 books and a basement space––has, over the years, developed into one of this University’s most cherished assets, with 45,000 shareholders.

    Later this month, the venerable Seminary Co-op Bookstore, which is located across the street from the Main Quadrangle entrance, will turn 40. Jack Cella, the store’s longtime general manager, said a celebration or commemorative event has yet to be planned for its Thursday, Oct. 18 anniversary. “We’d like to do something, but people have been preoccupied recently and we hadn’t been thinking about it.”

    Celebration or not, as the Co-op nears its fifth decade, faculty members are reflecting on the meaning of this one-of-a-kind bookstore.

    “I think it’s the best academic bookstore in the country,” said Robert Pippin, the Raymond W. and Martha Hilpert Gruner Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the College. “And I’ve visited virtually every one of them. If it’s an important enough book, the Co-op will have it.”

    What’s more, Pippin said, having the Co-op nearby is like having the assistance of a trusted colleague. One of the challenges for academics today is to keep up with the large number of books being published in their fields. In most cases, Pippin said, this means sifting through an ever-growing number of catalogs from book publishers. The Co-op, however, expedites this process, said Pippin.

    “Jack and the staff know the faculty here. They have a real sense of intelligence and taste, and they know good books,” said Pippin. “I can trust that if it’s not on the front table at the Co-op, it’s probably not worth reading.”

    Not only is Cella regarded as a tasteful bookseller, he’s also viewed by some as an arbiter of academia.

    When Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Professor in the Divinity School and the College, saw that Cella had grouped history of religion books with those in the anthropology section, she concluded that “all our efforts to keep the two disciplines separate had failed. If Jack saw that they were the same, they were the same,” said Doniger, who teaches the history of religion.

    Wayne Booth, the George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in English Language & Literature and the College, and a patron of the Seminary Co-op Bookstore since its founding, said it is not just the books that make the Co-op such a special place for him. “It’s sort of like a community center,” he said. “It’s a place where you run into friends and a place where you run into interesting strangers.”

    The Seminary Co-op, said Booth, is not exclusive to the University, Hyde Park or even Chicago book lovers. Over the years, he said he has met people who traveled hundreds of miles just to browse its shelves. “The people who love books come here. Those are the kind of people you hope to meet.”

    Cella agreed that serious bibliophiles across the country and world know the store. The Co-op currently has several thousand international shareholders from more than 50 different countries.

    As the store’s reputation has grown in bookish circles, it has become the envy of academia. Cella was once courted by Columbia University provost Jonathan Cole, who wanted him to open a similar bookstore in Morningside Heights. Cella declined, but eventually two New Yorkers created an academic bookstore, Labyrinth Books, inspired by the Co-op.

    Anyone who has visited the Co-op, though, knows that its maze-like, basement setting is nearly inimitable. That physical setting is for some part of its appeal. “The maze is quite wonderful,” said Doniger. “It’s mysterious. I sometimes wonder if someone will find a lost professor.”

    Another reason the Co-op inspires such passion from admirers is that as a cooperative, independent, academic bookstore, it is among an endangered species. It is one of only a few remaining bookstores structured as cooperatives. A Co-op bookstore at Yale University is experiencing serious difficulties and another at Oberlin College has failed in recent years, reported Cella. Secondly, many scholarly minded, independent booksellers have closed in recent years, under continuing competitive pressure from chain bookstores.

    Yet the Co-op, on the cusp of its 40th year, bucking all prevailing bookstore trends––no coffee, for instance––thrives. Why? Cella attributes its success partially to its passionately local focus. The Co-op’s mission, unchanged from its early days, is to serve the diverse reading needs of the University and Hyde Park communities. Cella believes the nearly iconic popularity of the store, among serious book-lovers nationally and internationally, is merely a byproduct of this local service. “Hyde Park is such a spectacularly diverse and stimulating community,” he said. “By serving Hyde Park’s book needs, we’ve become attractive to a certain type of person.”

    Cella also credits the store’s success to its steady supply of book-savvy staffers from the neighboring University.

    While little has changed in the atmosphere at the basement setting during the past 40 years, the Seminary Co-op has grown. The bookstore added 57th Street Books and a Newberry Library store, A.C. McClurg Bookstore, as well as an online bookselling arm. The 57th Street store has more of a community-centered focus, hosting frequent author events, while the Newberry store is “more of a museum shop, a companion to the library,” said Cella.

    The University Avenue store, though, remains strictly about books, Cella said. Right now, it squeezes more than 110,000 books into a 2,900-square-foot space.

    Looking beyond 40, Cella said, he hopes to further improve the store. For instance, if more space becomes available, he’d like to add more books from other languages, and perhaps, open a separate children’s bookstore.

    “People are appreciative,” said Cella, of the Hyde Park patrons, “but they’re also demanding. We can always do better.”