Moving up and out

A man in the basement locale of Seminary Co-op.

In 51 years, no concussions. Despite low-hanging pipes that loop across ceilings and snake down walls, work spaces with clearances barely 5 feet high, and a tight maze full of blind spots where customers could easily collide — the Seminary Co-op Bookstore never logged a major injury, said its general manager, Jack Cella, who has worked there more than 40 years and conscientiously padded the danger zones.

Far more common at the Hyde Park bookstore were Nobel Prize winners waiting in line alongside college freshmen. Grad students who came back decades later elated to find their own books displayed on the prestigious front table. Best-sellers that might not top the list at any other bookstore, such as Michele Lamont's "How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment."

This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.

When the Seminary Co-op closed its doors Nov. 11, preparing to move from the basement of the Chicago Theological Seminary at 5757 S. University Ave., where it resided for the past half century, to a new location nearly three times larger a block away, the people who made it such a beloved institution in Hyde Park and at the University of Chicago promised to go with it.

And yet the move from the quirky cave roused nostalgia among the many lovers of the co-op, which made no fanfare over closing weekend but received a steady trickle of well wishers.

"I came to say goodbye," Marshall Sahlins, Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and of Social Sciences at the University of Chicago, said on closing day as he stood by the shelves lined with the intellectual pamphlets from Prickly Paradigm Press, of which he is the executive publisher. "We'll miss it for its clutter. But all that clutter is not gold."

Sahlins approached Cella at his cramped desk under low wooden beams, where he was working as though it were a day like any other, and asked to buy 20 more shares in the co-op as a show of support.

"I'm just feeling nostalgic," said Sahlins, a member since the 1970s. "It's the best bookstore in the world. You can quote me on that and try to prove me wrong."

Kevin Huigens, a member of the co-op since his days as a student at the university, had dug up his original 1978 membership certificate and brought it with him as he and his wife made their final rounds through the stacks.

"It's very sad," said his wife, Anne Marie Crowe, who said she would miss the "unique environment." "I love medieval history, and when you're in that corner it feels like you're in the catacombs."

The bookstore reopens in the new location, at 5751 S. Woodlawn Ave., on Wednesday. To mark the move, it has invited authors to lead a one-block procession from the old location to the new one, carrying their most recent books to be displayed on the front table. The light-hearted book parade is scheduled for 11 a.m. Monday, accompanied by bagpipes, hot chocolate and coffee.

Employees look forward to the next chapter. But many co-op fans can't help but look back, perhaps none more so than former University of Chicago students Jasmine Kwong and Megan E. Doherty.

Since March, Kwong and Doherty have been documenting the life of the bookstore through photographs and interviews with employees and members, compiling them at So far 150 people have participated.

Both Kwong and Doherty say they were "motivated by a sense of loss." Their memories are vivid of what it was like to descend from the gothic stone lobby to discover a literary labyrinth with 160,000 books — 120,000 distinct titles — stuffed into every corner, as classical music drifted through the stacks.

"It's like Christmas," Kwong said.

"It's like a candy store for adults," said Doherty.

"The University of Chicago is about the life of the mind," Doherty continued, "and if you think about what it would be like to be in one of those minds, I think of the bookstore."

Kwong, who got her undergraduate degree in psychology at the university and now works in a psychology lab at the Booth School of Business, and Doherty, who got her master's and Ph.D. in the philosophy of religion at the Divinity School, did not know each other before launching the project. Kwong had an idea to showcase photographs of the bookstore at the university's annual Festival of the Arts when she came across an article Doherty had written about the bookstore for Gapers Block. She sent her an email and they agreed to collaborate.

They have since presented three exhibits of the Seminary Co-op Documentary Project, displaying photographs and excerpts from their interviews: Cella remembering Saul Bellow wandering into the stock room and shocking an employee to the point of tears; assistant manager Heather Ahrenholz describing the Dominican Republic president's penchant for the economics section.