More than shelves of books: Project memorializes Seminary Co-op Bookstore – Chicago Tribune
Two smart and lively young women, Jasmine Kwong and Megan Doherty, have spent much of their time over the past five years trying to capture the meaning of a bookstore.
As they write in the foreword to the book that is the manifestation of their energetic and heartfelt efforts, “We set out to document the Co-op … to create as complete a visual record of it as possible.” They took many photos, talked with employees and customers and before they knew it they had a book that they deem a “gathering of priceless observations of how a bookstore can become a sanctuary, a community. Home.”
And it’s a wonderful and, in its quiet way, an important book. “If You Weren’t Looking For It: The Seminary Co-op Bookstore” is the sort of homage that every independent bookstore — a sadly vanishing breed — deserves though few have as storied a history as does this one.
The Seminary Co-op, which the women rightly call “the most highly regarded academic bookstore in the world,” began in 1961 when a handful of students and faculty each ponied up $10 toward the purchase of 100 books and rent on a basement space in the Chicago Theological Seminary (hence the store’s name) at East 58th Street and University Avenue in the heart of the University of Chicago‘s campus in Hyde Park.
It grew and grew, sprouting outposts in the form of 57th Street Books at 1301 E. 57th St. (opened in 1983) and the A.J. McClurg Bookstore in the Newberry Library at 60 W. Walton St.
Its main space was a maze-like wonder, with more than 120,000 titles but without the CDs, diet books, cards, calendars and the other odd “embellishments” to be found at chain bookstores.
Kwong and Doherty met after the latter had written a terrific three-part story in 2011 for the dearly missed Gapers Block website in honor of the Co-op’s 50th anniversary and its impending move from its beloved underground space into a new facility. (The Co-op now has more than 50,000 members, all of whom joined by buying at least three shares, at $10 a share. They get a 10 percent discount on whatever they buy).
“I read the story, got in touch and we met for coffee,” says Kwong.
“And our project was born,” says Doherty.
They started taking photos and interviewing people and asking some others to contribute their thoughts and feelings on the bookstore. None of those people got paid for doing so.
The longest contribution is, fittingly, by Jack Cella, who came to the Co-op as a part-time employee in 1967 and would wind up managing the place until 2013. He was its heart and soul and his essay in the book is a detailed and intimate history. This is some of what he writes: “I think we always felt that if we operated a bookstore that really meshed with the interest of our Hyde Park customers, we would attract customers from beyond our immediate neighborhood … a bookstore attractive to readers around the country, and around the world.”
The store did that and got a jolt of notoriety after one of its neighbors and frequent customers (and since 1986 a Co-op member), Barack Obama, was elected president in 2008.
Obama was understandably too busy to contribute to the book but I was not. This is some of what I wrote, having visited dozens of times over the years: “Where else might you find, on just one foray, such provocative titles as “The Racketeer’s Progress: Chicago and the Struggle for the Modern American Economy: 1900-1940,” or “White on Arrival: Italian, Race, Color and Power in Chicago” or “The Sexual Organization of the City”? “
Also, the book contains the words of such notable writers as the inimitable Blue Balliett, who has long lived in the neighborhood with her husband Bill Klein and their kids and who has written a number of best-selling novels for children (among them “Chasing Vermeer,” “The Wright 3,” “The Danger Box” and ” Pieces and Players”). She recalls her first encounter with the store: “I wandered into a bookstore tucked beneath the Chicago Theological Seminary. For the first time, I began to feel that our new home might just have magic. What a space! Impossible. Secretive. Old and odd.”
Former U.S. poet laureate (1990) and Pulitzer Prize-winning (1999) poet Mark Strand spent time teaching at the U. of C. and calls the Co-op “the greatest bookstore in America.”
Novelist (“Nowhere Man” and “The Lazarus Project”) Aleksandar Hemon has this to say: “Every great bookstore allows the reader to get lost in it.”
There are other words from patrons and employees, such as this from a former U. of C. student named Eve Ewing: “When you’re seventeen, this place seems like a place that you always hoped would exist but never encountered before. That’s unforgettable.”
And this from former employee Matthew Christian: “Even if everything on earth was available electronically, which it is not, how do you get introduced to that book, that chance encounter with a really interesting book?”
Kwong, who received a B.A. from the U. of C., works managing a psychology lab there. Doherty, with her Ph.D. from the university’s Divinity School, works as a freelance photographer/writer. They enjoyed their collaboration and are proud of the result. Their book had a small first printing but why not visit the Co-op and buy a copy. If they are out of stock, order one and then walk around. It’s a safe bet that you’ll find something to take home and read.
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