The Seminary Co-op Bookstore sits at the bottom of a set of gray stairs, polished to sheen from years of wear, in the basement of the Chicago Theological Seminary across the street from the main quadrangles of the University of Chicago in Hyde Park. It unfolds in a series of differently shaped passageways, the ceiling crisscrossed with pipes and ducts and the concrete floor sounding with the muffled footsteps of sneaker-clad patrons. Sitting on the wooden shelves, like artifacts in the wall recesses of a catacomb, is the largest collection of academic titles in the United States. “I don’t think there’s a question [that we carry the most academic titles in the country]. We’re the largest single customer for a lot of university presses,” explains Jack Cella, the closest thing to a general manager for the consumer-owned Co-op and its sister store 57th Street Books, in another basement three blocks away from the seminary.
The Co-op was founded in 1961 by seventeen members who each invested ten dollars. Today, the store has 45,000 members worldwide. Anyone can become a member by buying three shares of company stock at ten dollars each. Members get ten percent off purchases made at the Seminary Co-op and 57th Street Books, as well as the Co-op-managed store at the Newberry Library on the North Side. For students at the University of Chicago, many of whom buy humanities and social sciences course books from the Co-op, the savings returns from membership are the closest thing to a free lunch they can get at school.
While the Co-op’s inventory and revenue are influenced by the proximity of the brainy university (course books represent ten percent of annual sales figures), it sees itself as a community bookstore serving the greater South Side. 57th Street Books does a large part in fulfilling that vision. “We try to do different things at each of the store. When we opened 57th Street Books, we didn’t want to do something we were already doing … so it’s more of a general-interest store,” Cella says. Together, the two stores’ inventory comprises the richest in the city. “If you put the three [stores] together, we carry a very, very wide range of titles.” Cella concludes: “We try to be the best fit we can be in the community we’re in, and we’re in a very interesting community.” (John Thompson)
Seminary Co-op Bookstore, 5757 South University, (773)752-4381; 57th Street Books, 1301 East 57th, (773)684-1300