Your Co-op, Your Stories
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Within these walls of timeless stone, alumni of Chicago Men’s A Capella pay tribute to the Seminary Co-Op with a rendition of the alma mater.
It’s not typical by any means…It’s not just a bookstore, and it’s not just a co-op. It’s a special kind of intellectual community that’s been formed there.
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 coop is in the rarefied latter group.
It’s a weird source of identity. It’s what I identify Hyde Park with. It’s an institution.
Like lots of people, I’ve treasured the Co-op for many years and regard it not only as the best bookstore I know, but an institution of extraordinary dedication, integrity, and value. The idiosyncracies 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.
When you arrive, you won’t think you’re necessarily at the right place. Then you will see a little sign that guides you to the catacombs of this enchanted world of words. You will descend a set of stairs, and then you will simply stare. Books. Endless row upon row of books. You will duck pipes, dodge faucets, and squeeze between shelves and working furnaces, and you will love every minute of it. 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.
How could I forget the dank low ceiling basement where the most important books—at least in the English language—were all there, all available for the picking. And if you wanted to know what was at the center of U.S. academic life, they were even laid out on a table for browsing. No wonder it’s the most important bookstore in America! Thanks, Jack and thanks to all of you…
Even after all these years the feeling of excitement and pure pleasure I feel is activated as soon as I enter the building.
The Coop is a unique and precious place and I hope they can recreate some of the labyrinthean mystery in the new place. When my husband, Michael Behnke, was in his final interviews to be V-P in charge of Admission/Enrollment etc in 1997, I insisted on accompanying him to Chicago because I had never been there. After a lovely morning tour by Rose Dyrud, I was dropped at the Sem Coop until he was finished. My doubts about Chicago evaporated at that moment. The oasis of books, the charm of the staff (especially Jack) and the world of intellectual possibilities opened up on the spot. All my hesitations vanished and I announced to my husband when he picked me up that if we could not find a house, I would be happy sleeping under the book table. I ended up teaching in the Classics, Humanities and Fundamentals programs and being on the board of the Coop. Having lived and taught in many places in the USA and abroad, I can honestly say that there is no bookstore anywhere with the breadth and depth and warmth of the Coop. Viva La Coop!!
My memories of the Seminary Co-op are from the end of the first few quarters of college. Most students would rush back to the Co-op on the first two or three days of the quarter to acquire books, but I was more eager. When finals were done, I immediately went to the Co-op to browse the course books, even if they were only present for a few classes.
This was my Aladdin’s Cave. I discovered it my first week as an undergrad in ‘77 and for years would visit as a necessity for class text and as a treat for browsing.
I still have on my shelf a book I’m just waiting for the right time to read.
For me, the Co-op represents excellence on many levels: its selection of books, its quantity, quality, depth of scholarship, the knowledgeable and helpful staff, classical music and opera playing in the background, to a name a few. 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.
I have very fond memories of trolling the shelves at the Co-op. I’ve purchased over the years numerous books from the Co-op, by phone, since I’m infrequently in the Chicago area. As a book lover and traveller, I’ve had the good fortune to visit many of the quality bookstores in the US, as well as a number abroad. The Co-op is, in my estimation (admittedly as an ex-academic) the best bookshop in the US, comparable to the Blackwell’s in Oxford and Heffer’s in Cambridge. I’ve had to depend for many years for the Co-op for the books I’ve wanted and needed, sometimes from out-of-the-way presses, and they’ve never failed me. Congratulations on the new facility, and best wishes for many more years of quality service. Thanks for never losing sight of the importance of printed books and of learning.
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.
Having once worked for five years at one of the country’s best independent bookstores (the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver), I’m especially partial to independent bookstores. And much though I loved (and still love) the Tattered Cover, I have to say the Seminary Coop is by far the most extraordinary bookstore I’ve ever known. While a look through any of the store’s particular sections is likely to strike enthusiasts of that discipline as strikingly (if not uniquely) good—and in this regard, I have to say the Philosophy section is really head-and-shoulders above anything I’ve ever encountered—what’s perhaps most remarkable is the “front table” display. The intelligence and discernment that consistently go into that invariably interesting selection of recent scholarly titles are nothing short of brilliant. The front table display always represents a selection of titles that are at once at the cutting edge of all manner of various fields, *and* eminently reflective of University-of-Chicago-inflected interests (this is among the places where it’s clear that this is very much a *community* bookstore, albeit that of a truly extraordinary community); that Jack Cella seems, in addition, always to have *read* all of them just boggles the imagination. The Seminary Coop is among those places of which it can truly be said that the world is a better place in virtue of its existence; may it continue to be so!
New York’s Labyrinth [bookstore] should have a similar feel, but it never did. It was always kind of dusty…Blackwell’s [at Oxford] is pretty impressive, but it wasn’t well organized. It was overwhelming in the wrong way. All the books were there, but you wouldn’t know why they were there. At the Co-op they’ve created an environment so that why the books that are there makes sense.
There are bookstores, and bookstores. The Seminary Co-op Bookstore, in front of the University of Chicago’s main quad is not flashy at first sight, rather spartan, cloistered; after a few hours wandering around the shelves, it becomes exceptional. No couches, coffee or other distractions, just books and books in that place. More than 100,000 new titles in the humanities and social sciences. All of them set in a sort of labyrinth of 14 rooms, some of them subdivided, connected with very narrow one meter aisles, with some slopes from time to time. The heating pipes exposed, low ceilings and no free space, no books where you can see the front (except for one big table with “news” with around 50 titles scattered). The rest of the books, packed and standing on their backs. So anyone that releases them, buys and takes them makes them breathe: that’s the idea. [Translated from Spanish.]
Time is the ultimate scarce resource. Many technologies designed to save time actually waste a lot of it. We might also regard with suspicion some of the “choice architectures” that designers of technology present.
Devices shrink ideas down to sound bites.
The book remains as a defense, but technology intervenes to tell us what is important about any book. As a physical book made of paper, the book can speak for itself. Through randomness of strolling, we revolt against being programmed.
A key thing about books is they are long. An author has put a lot of thought into how many things connect together. Hence some of the best books, such as Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, are over 900 pages long.
The front table at the Seminary Bookstore presents a hundred or so of the best books coming out each month, each clamoring for attention.
The visual impact of covers grabs attention, then there is the poetic impact of snappy titles. But one can move beyond this superficiality, grab the book in one’s hands, read the table of contents, or the last page, or random pages throughout. How one makes one’s way into a 900 page book is a problem. Having the whole thing in our hands, we get practice digesting large wholes of thought.
Each visit to the bookstore reveals conjunctures between ideas that occur to us as we look over several books. Serendipity generates ideas we hadn’t thought of. We may fall into conversation or disputation with fellow browsers. Then we may even buy a few of these books to give them great attention.
The bookstore’s superb selection of math and statistics books has been an immeasurable help professionally for many years, while its Chinese art books and other surprises have been an enduring delight.
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 at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore. And yet: This has happened even unto me! I was giddy when I found out from a Chicagoan friend who shopped there and reported the astounding prodigy.
And then: On my next trip to Chicago (I get back every couple of years for one or another conference or speaking engagement) I visited the bookstore and gladly introduced one of my college-age sons to its mysteries and glories. I was thrilled to the point of dizziness, however, when Jack Cella actually recognized me and we enjoyed a few moments of what for him was polite small talk and for me was mere delighted burbling.
The Seminary Co-op Bookstore inspired me to read and write books, and then honoured me when I did so. May its singular ability to inspire and encourage continue for decades to come—and may Jack never, ever leave…
I have been a devoted customer of the Seminary Co-op for over thirty years. When I came to the U of C in 1979 from a small town in Ohio, I found the next two years an adjustment, to say the least. While I prospered academically and earned my Masters two years later, it was not without a good deal of stress. Early in my time in Hyde Park, I found and became a member of the Seminary Co-op. No place I had ever been had such a panoply of academic titles offered and I spent more than my budget there often.
More than just the books, though, the Co-op presented the place to go when I was feeling down, especially on winter days. Not only was there learning all around, it had to be the warmest place in all Hyde Park. At 6’2”, I even enjoyed bumping my head against the padded pipes. Since graduation, I have made a point of going back to the Co-op several times a year, especially on cold days, as well as singing its praises to my friends.
I will no doubt continue to patronize the Co-op in its new location, but I will always fondly remember the literal and figurative warmth of books in the basement.
I love the old store, but I welcome the move to the new site next to Robie House: more room for still more books, and proper head room for someone who is 6’ 4” tall!
I’m quite high on our customers.
I’ve spent more time [at the Co-op] than any other location in my entire life, it will be very strange having this physical space not being here anymore. It’ll be strange not to ever walk into this particular place again.
Jack and others are just an unbelievable resource in terms of knowledge of the books. I don’t know how many times I’ve walked in and I said, ‘Jack, there’s this book on such-and-such a topic, and I can’t remember the author and I can’t remember the title, can you help me find it?’ And he finds it. Invariably.
The Seminary Co-op will always serve as the model of what a bookstore should be like. Every time I visited the basement space I felt like I was glimpsing into the soul of UChicago; visits were more like pilgrimages to a shrine dedicated to the life of the mind.
[Saul Bellow] used to come into the store a lot, and he liked to explore — you know what this place is like, it’s a maze. He liked to go back and look to see what was being unpacked. He wandered to the back, and there was [an undergraduate employee] unpacking some books, and [she] felt a tap on her shoulder. I don’t know how Saul got back there, because we have a little bungee cord blocking the way, but it doesn’t do much. Apparently, he wound his way back there…and asked her what she was doing. She looks up, realizes who he is, and started crying—it was such a shock!
My three Co-op shares are probably the best $30 I ever spent, having paid for themselves many times over. I remember many walks home from campus, trying to resist the urge to enter the open door to the Seminary building, knowing that if I did, I would disappear for an hour or more while struggling to resist dropping $ on books I likely wouldn’t open until quarter’s end.
I was a ‘reader’ even before I could read. As a little girl, I would fall asleep with piles of books under my pillow at night, firmly believing that all of the knowledge they contained would somehow magically seep its way into my sleeping brain. My early love for reading came from my father. Wherever we made our home, we were always surrounded by his philosophy books, which he read endlessly, tirelessly. He inspired in me a sense of awe and wonder at all the possibilities contained within the pages of a book. I never cease to experience it. The first thing he said to me when I told him that I would be moving to Chicago to pursue a Ph.D. in Psychology was: “You must go to the Seminary Co-Op. It’s the most wonderful bookstore in the world.
This store clearly embodies part of why [students] were coming to the University of Chicago.
We’re going to have to think about what it means to be a bookstore to keep moving forward, by redefining what it means to be a brick and mortar bookstore.
The Seminary Co-Op has long been, for me, the Watchmen of bookstores. Which is to say… Deceptively unassuming, as far as appearances go—but soon enough (that is, once the obligatory SOSC texts have been bought) one discovers with each additional pass a new experience, each more exquisite and larger-than-life than the last. Few places in the world can boast that singular confluence of character and narrative, adventure and pure discovery. The Co-Op, as I’ve known it during my four years here, is one such place.
The Seminary Co-op is one of the best bookstores in the world, right up there with Shakespeare and Co. in Paris. It is a national treasure, and it makes a major contribution to the cultural life of Chicago in the same way as the Chicago Symphony or the Art Institute. It is beloved by every student or professor that has ever wandered through its maze, and academics around the world who have enjoyed its eccentric but welcoming atmosphere would want to ensure that it continues on forever.
I can find any book I need at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore.
The Seminary Co-op is the best academic bookstore in the country. With its front table and wide selection of academic works, it has been essential in the development of many community members’ academic careers. This truly speaks volumes to the caliber of the bookstore as it is aiding the development of many of the already prestigious University of Chicago’s bright faculty and students. The labyrinth that is the basement of the Chicago Theological Seminary is an integral part of what defines the bookstore and has helped shape the store over the last 50 years. We can only hope that these two components can be separated from each other in the success of the new bookstore.
A New York Times article in yesterday’s edition quoted a French author referring to books as “living things” and indeed they are. The co-op bookstore and its supporters have kept the world of books (in Hyde Park and beyond) hale and well for these many happy years and I look forward to the future with great confidence that it will remain vibrant thanks to its staunch and loyal guardians at Seminary Co-op.
The Seminary Co-Operative is iconic in the truest sense of the word: its mere mention elicits in its admirers a full sensory experience, from the feeling of the cement floor under one’s sneakers to the sound one friend termed the “gentle murmur of public radio” playing somewhere behind the information desk. It symbolizes so much about the University of Chicago, about our relationship with (and fetishization of, healthy or not) knowledge. It’s also just a singularly lovely place. I’m so grateful for it.
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.
I think a bookstore can be an education. What I often say to prospective employees that are being interviewed [is this]: 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.
I joined the Co-op years ago because I’ve been involved in and supportive of co-ops since my college days at Oberlin College which has more co-op dorms than any college in U.S. I lived in them for 3 years, then joined co-op store and garden in New Haven CT in 1970’s and 80’s. The bookstore is a treasure because one is able to most serious books and find others through the incredible browsing space, even if it is sometimes crowded. I joined the bookstore when visiting Chicago in the 1980’s. So it’s a great store. I can always order and have books mailed, in a timely manner. I hope you can keep it going. All best wishes for a successful move and continued good reading.
The SemCoop was such a refuge for me during my years at Chicago. When I was feeling discouraged, I’d often pay a visit to the course-books section, browse through the amazing reading lists, and invariably feel inspired and refreshed, and so grateful to be part of the UChicago community.
Best book cave ever.
I’ve been going to the Co-op my whole life. When I was young I didn’t care for it very much, mostly due to a fear or getting lost in the labyrinth of books. However, as I got older I think that eventually became the appeal of the place. I can always go to the Co-op for a specific reason, but the best things I’ve ever found have always been on visits when I go without one.
One of the perks of working where I do, and a huge factor in my enjoyment of the area, is the Sem Co-Op and what its existence means to the general level of intellect and involvement in Hyde Park. What better ambassador to the community but a place where books are available?
The Seminary Co-operative Bookstore is a one-of-a-kind place for every kind of serious reader.
I grew up with the Seminary Co-Op just a few blocks from my house, and I honestly cannot imagine my reading life without it. On a given weekend, I’m more likely to be found in the philosophy section in back than anywhere else outside home.
Over the years we’ve been asked to consider opening up stores elsewhere, and we were really pretty close one time to opening up a store in New York [City]. [The Co-op’s] success has been that it’s tried to remain resolutely local…Although, the Board’s declining to open a store near Columbia got a tremendous amount of publicity - much more for saying we’re not going to move to New York than we’ve ever gotten for anything else!
We couldn’t survive if it weren’t for this community. We’re completely symbiotic.
The things that are interesting [about working at the Co-op] are two, primarily: the books on the shelves, and the people that come in.
The bookstore was a treasure cave of warmth and books. It was the most comforting feeling, walking around this space. That just stayed with me forever.
Although I was at the U of I medical center, not U of C, I always used the Co-op to order books. They could find anything, and nothing was too odd to pursue. I have retired and living in Northern Michigan, but for 35 years in Chicago it was part of my life.
My first year at the UofC I went to the Co-op. I purchased my $30 in stock, and then I made my way to the back where my core coursework books might be. I was taking Greek Thought and Lit and Classics of Social and Political thought, I should have brought two backpacks that day…
I remember feeling that my typical method of ‘search until you find it’ approach was not going to work here. This isn’t to say that the Co-op is disorganized, not in the least. But, there was such a labyrinth of text that I was overwhelmed. To preface, I sought out tiny bookstores like candy, and after working at different libraries in high school, I took pride in being able to find texts.
After about 12 minutes scouring through the shelves, I swallowed what little pride I had left and asked a bearded man wearing a green “Where God drinks coffee” shirt (which I later discovered comes from the Divinity School Coffee shop) where my books were. He nodded, as if I was the 99th person to be lost today. He proceeded to challenge me to a thought experiment of where my books might be in an ideal setting according to the shop’s logic. After he finished his Socratic approach to guiding me, he ended my lesson by saying, “We’re out of that now, come back Friday”.
There was a magic to the place and if you had the time, and the curiosity you could really have a good time.
The great thing is to find books that I didn’t know of, so I didn’t know that I needed them - that is still far more possible in a real bookstore than through online shopping.
One of the secrets of the success of the [Co-op] is the management. [Jack] is probably one of the hardest working book-men I know of. And that kind of caring about books is what also keeps me coming back. You feel a certain way when you go in there—you feel the seriousness, you feel the love, you feel the caring…Jack is probably the only man in books, that I know, that works just as hard as I do!
Room after room after room. And every room was a beautiful new surprise…It’s not just getting lost: There’s sections you don’t go to at a particular phase of your life, [but then] you discover new places…so you can actually map your life against parts of the bookstore.