Shelf life

As the Seminary Co-op moves from its underground origins into the light of day, the bookstore’s denizens bid the beloved space farewell.

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Every morning the Seminary Co-op Bookstore staff step up to an old brick-and-stone building, pull open a heavy wooden door, and descend the stairs to the basement, which shelters some 160,000 books. They flip more than two dozen light switches, one by one, until the catacombs of handmade shelves are lit in a fluorescent glow. Colored pipes—most blue, some white or red—cling to the ceiling and jut out from the walls, plunging into the floor like roots. We know the books came later, over the course of decades, to be housed in whatever crook or corner could be found. And yet, in moments of getting lost around the next turn, of finding yet more stairs or an old mechanical bellows, it feels as though the books were always there and the store grew up around them—walls, shelves, pipes, and all.

I first felt the odd permanence of those volumes nearly ten years ago, when I stepped into the Co-op as a new graduate student in philosophy of religion at the Divinity School. I quickly acquired a habit of getting lost somewhere between philosophy and the front table, and it became impossible to escape  the Co-op unencumbered by the weight of books I’d just discovered, or that found me, as I realized I wasn’t so lost anymore. 

Two graduate degrees later, I’m sad to think I’ll never again twist down those stairs. The Seminary Co-op embodies the ethos of its neighbor, the University of Chicago, and exemplifies what the University strives to cultivate: a love of ideas, a reverence for the printed page. This place is the life of the mind. At least, for the past decade, it’s been the life of mine.

After almost 51 years, this fall the Co-op is moving one block east, into the light of day, to inhabit the first floor of McGiffert House, once a Chicago Theological Seminary residence hall. The University, which bought the Co-op’s original building, is renovating it for a new occupant, the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics. When I heard about the move, I thought it cannot be—you cannot replicate what has grown organically from the spot where it began in 1961, when 14 book lovers, all of them students or faculty at the seminary and the Divinity School, chipped in $10 each to found what has become one of the world’s most exceptional independent bookstores. Soon the Co-op will no longer exist as it has, but it will continue in a new form, and, fate willing, carry on for another 51 years.

The Co-op has always been devoted, without distraction, to books. No coffee, no knickknacks—just books. Its patrons, from out of state and out of country, come to lose themselves in a place without commercialization, commodification, or gimmick. They have scavenged couch cushions for loose change in the ’80s to make “book trips” from South Bend, Indiana; they have bought armloads of books on economics, sociology, history, health care, psychology, political science—anything related to society’s problems and solutions—and then returned home, promptly, to the Dominican Republic; they have gathered around the front table to know what was worth knowing; they have bought a copy, clean and unmarked, of Hegel’s Phenomenology almost every time they came in. They had their ashes scattered on the lawn out front.

Come fall, the books will be gone from this space. The handmade shelves will be empty, and memories will be all that remain of the original Co-op.

 

Help keep the Co-op’s roots alive

As the Co-op moves, Jasmine Kwong, AB’06, and I have launched a project to document the bookstore, and we are grateful for the support of the Co-op board, staff, and the University.

We have photographed the space and those who inhabit it; we are collecting stories, memories, and reflections, both oral and written. And we are calling on the UChicago community to participate: stop by the bookstore to have your portrait taken in your favorite section, submit a story, or let us record an interview on what the Seminary Co-operative Bookstore means to you and what you believe is its importance.

In part we hope to capture the life of the Co-op; at the very least we will amass an archive to be housed in the University Library’s Special Collections Research Center, including artifacts and memorabilia of the Co-op—especially old photographs of the bookstore.

We will continue to document the Co-op through its move and as it settles into its new space. We hope to produce a book so that everyone who loves this cooperative can carry the memories of its original home with them.

Please contact us at sem.coop.project@gmail.com or at Facebook.

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