2:06 PM EST, November 16, 2012
Last Sunday morning I arrived at Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Hyde Park a couple of hours before it opened. The Co-op, founded by 17 University of Chicago students in 1961 and beloved by Hyde Park, had spent its 51 years in the cloistered, claustrophobic, labyrinthine basement corridors of the Chicago Theological Seminary, a graystone cathedral on South University Avenue with gothic curves and heavy wooden doors several inches thick.
I knocked and waited. Beside the door were stacks of Mad Lib-like cards — "(Blank) thinks the Seminary Co-Op is (Blank)" — that asked Co-op fans to fill in the blanks. On one card someone had written "the Seminary Co-Op is what a bookstore should be, happy accidents of introduction."
An employee answered the door.
I was led down the steep stone steps to Jack Cella, the general manager. Curls of tea steam wafted from his desk. He smiled grimily and looked around at the empty store and said: "I hate to put it this way, but I have spent the best years of my life down here." Cella, a picture of conservative stability in khakis and a V-neck sweater, had worked in this low-ceilinged submarine of a shop since he was student, since 1968. The Co-op, never especially loud, was unnervingly still, the silence only broken by the hiss of pipes. The previous afternoon, Cella said, the place had been mobbed with well-wishers and mourners and head-shakers. Jesse Jackson stopped by. Cella said that though the Seminary Co-op counts 53,000 members — including President Barack Obama, who has been a member since 1986 — "it's still the rare person who walks by this building and realizes a bookstore is down here, which hasn't always been good for business."
But wait. This is not another story about the end of a bookstore or decline of the printed word. It is instead about the self-pitying, fetishistic nostalgia that has descended on bookstores and book culture. However well-meaning, it threatens to write the epitaph for a medium that — as threatened as it is — is not dead yet.
The Co-op, for instance, which closed its basement spot for good on the Sunday I was there, reopens this week on Woodlawn Avenue, only a block away, on the ground floor of a 12,000-square-foot space (more than double the size of the old space) next door to Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House (which sees about 30,000 tourists a year).
"We will now have a better chance of being noticed by people," Cella said.
And yet, regardless of how endearing that basement was, the Co-op's flagship store has been grieved as though it had been brutally shuttered and demolished by book-hating goons, the earth salted. Those fill-in-the-blank cards? Part of a documentary project by former U. of C. students paying homage to the Co-op.
I get this. I hate to see a place with so much character fade away too. (Ironically, the university, which owns the building, plans to move its economics department into the space.) I even have a stack of new books on my desk that genuflect before the reading life and regard bookstores as hallowed places — "Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores," "My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorites Places to Browse, Read and Shop," "The Books They Gave Me: True Stories of Life, Love and Lit," "Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times," "Read This! Handpicked Favorites from America's Indie Bookstores" and "My Ideal Bookshelf," a book of paintings of the favorite books of famous authors, designers and chefs. Oh, and there's "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore," a novel by Robin Sloan, a former Twitter executive. It's developing a cult following at the moment. Of course it is: Sloan writes a wry, precious, Wes Anderson-y tale of a web developer who falls for the life of printed words at a mysterious old bookshop.
I love books about books and have read many of the titles above — "My Ideal Bookshelf," despite an unbearably cute premise, makes a particularly fine gift. But to pick through some of this stuff, you would think the physical book has become a rare violin. Personally, I put sweaty glasses of water on my books and write in the margins and tear pages. I throw my books and snap their spines. The last thing I want in my life is a museum piece, a totem so impractical to everyday living it's better put under glass. Even Chicago's Newberry Library — which itself has a new coffee-table book, "The Newberry 125: Stories of Our Collection," that's something of a history of the printed page — "is less interested now in printed objects than seeing how a printed object got used day to day," Newberry Library President David Spadafora said. "Libraries used to want pristine copies, but acquisition goals evolved. Now we're motivated to find books with handwriting on them."
To show the everyday practicality of the book. And as much as I appreciate the appreciation and recognize the fragility of what is at stake, there's a sentimentality at work that's prematurely calcifying a culture.
Which is why it was so gratifying talking with Teresa Kirschbraun the other day.
"I think if we're seeing a whole lot of people writing right now about what it feels like to hold a book and smell a book and what it means to have a bookstore in their community, it's because until recently we took all of that for granted," she told me. "The people who are writing these things realize they have to think about why they still want a physical book and bookstore in their lives. Which is probably a good thing for people to do."
On the other hand …
Kirschbraun is tough, clear-eyed, not dippy; she has lived in Logan Square for 20 years, long before the hipster/gentrifying onslaught. Until a couple of years ago she worked as a management consultant to physician practices and served as the chief administrator of Advocate Children's Hospital in Park Ridge. Wanting to do something else — something that included books — she learned the business, made publishing contacts, interviewed bookstore owners. She spent two years planning her leap. Last summer, she opened City Lit Books in Logan Square (2523 N. Kedzie Blvd.), the first new bookstore (that sells just new titles, not used or a combination of new and used) in Chicago since The Book Cellar opened in Lincoln Square in 2003.
"Every day someone finds me in the store and thanks me for (City Lit Books)," Kirschbraun said. "But I also get annoyed ... because people constantly tell me how brave and courageous I am and how they wish they had done it but they would never have the nerve. And I cannot relate to any of that. I feel like I did my homework and I am not an idiot and I know what I'm doing, and if this is done right there's less risk than they would imagine."
She cites a recent (slight) uptick in publishing revenues; the gradual contraction of the business from megastores back to indies. She says, "People see the future of book-buying as digital, and I just don't believe it." Put that up against the (not slight) uptick in e-book sales and sales of tablets, and her argument gets much less convincing. Unless you've actually been to City Lit, which is charming, smart, well-stocked, if not overflowing.
Her aims are modest.
She admits: As Pollyannaish as it sounds, she can think of nothing that keeps bookstores more viable than simply ensuring a bookstore exists where a child can shop. It's more of a practical consideration than a misty-eyed one.
"Without bookstores, kids won't think it's a natural thing to go to bookstores," she said.
Oddly enough, an hour later, when I spoke to Joe Queenan — the essayist and satirist whose "One for the Books" is a new memoir of a lifelong obsession with books — he said almost identical words, but with far less hope: "If there are no bookstores, children simply stop thinking it's natural thing to buy a book in one."
He is far less sentimental on the culture of books. Therefore, perhaps, the most vital voice.
He said he doesn't care about bookstores much, "the same way I don't feel I need to look at all the food every time I go to a supermarket." He said he cares about physical books because he wants to write in them and keep train tickets in them, and because books remind him of places and people. A book is a living thing to him. People who prefer e-books and reading on a Kindle, he writes, argue that physical books are ridiculous and just take up space: "This is true, but so do your children, Prague and the Sistine Chapel."
He told me that his town in New York lost its only bookstore recently — and truth is, the town never wanted it in the first place. He led me to the heartbreaking ending of Penelope Fitzgerald's novel "The Bookshop," which closes with the image of a failed bookstore owner: "As the train drew out of the station she sat with her head bowed in shame, because the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop." His point was, no matter what we wish here, books and bookstores are both vital and doomed.
Which, of course, is the real tragedy.
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