For nearly 50 years, the intricate maze of books that lies at the bottom of a steep staircase in the basement of the Chicago Theological Seminary building at 5757 South University Avenue in Hyde Park has been an incredibly popular place to get lost. The Seminary Co-op Bookstore’s labyrinthine layout and inviting alcoves filled with texts entice visitors to venture further and further down its book-lined hallways, thumbing through pages of works they never intended to find. As the minutes and hours pass by unnoticed, patrons find themselves losing track of everything but the words on the page before them. After being thrust back into reality by a creaking shelf or a sudden passerby, the bookstore’s visitors often depart with grins on their faces, feeling as though they have just left a magical place.
That’s the romantic view, at least. For some members, and especially for the bookstore’s staff, the basement location isn’t quite so charming. Its small, meandering corridors are an air-circulation nightmare, especially during the summer months, when the bookstore starts feeling like it was built in an armpit. And despite the twisting floor plan, the space lacks the capacity to carry as many books as the Co-op’s owners would like; employees have to work within frustratingly confined conditions, amid stacks of documents and boxes filled with new arrivals. For readers, the joy of getting completely absorbed in a book can be dangerous, as the store’s menacing network of low-hanging pipes dishes out bruises indiscriminately. The current space is threatened by other natural hazards during heavy storms, when the risk of floods and power outages looms over the underground bookstore. For many, then, it was a considerable relief when the University of Chicago purchased the seminary building in 2008 and began making arrangements to move the bookstore to a more spacious location. By the beginning of 2012, the more than 150,000 books lining the walls will be moved one block east to a newly redesigned space in the empty McGiffert House, at 5751 South Woodlawn Avenue.
The bookstore was established in its current location in 1961, when 17 original investors put up ten dollars each to start a cooperative. The building’s location, across the street from a campus filled with knowledge-craving students, helped establish the independent Seminary Co-op Bookstore as a major part of University life. Since its founding, the Co-op’s membership has grown considerably, topping off at nearly 54,000 current members and boasting hundreds of patrons abroad. Throughout the years, the Co-op’s cavernous hallways have played host to three generations of students, many famous authors, a few Nobel laureates, and even President Barack Obama.
The success of the original store prompted the Co-op to expand. In 1983 it opened its second Hyde Park location, 57th Street Books, and in 1995 it began operating the Newberry Library Bookstore on the Near North Side. Whereas the original Co-op location is lauded for its incredible selection of academic texts, these sister stores appeal to popular and family audiences. The selections in all three bookstores often reflect the communities around them.
The Co-op’s long relationship with the University took on a new character in 2008 when the University purchased the Chicago Theological Seminary building. In July 2010, University officials and Co-op employees announced that the University would fund the Co-op’s move to the McGiffert house.
Once the bookstore vacates the basement in early 2012 and the seminary itself heads to a new building south of the Midway Plaisance, the structure will undergo extensive renovations, including desperately needed upgrades to its heating and mechanical systems. The current seminary building will likely become the new home of the UofC’s Department of Economics, and the interior spaces will be renovated accordingly.
This careful repair and repurposing, termed “adaptive reuse” in the University’s plan, will also bring the Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics (MFIRE) to the building. The presence of the MFIRE has been a source of much debate, with many faculty and students decrying the retooling of a theological seminary and bookstore into an institution that takes its name and many of its basic assumptions from a highly controversial economist. But these two symbols of the University are not such easy opposites–after all, Friedman himself was a member of the Co-op–and whatever legitimate objections there are to MFIRE, they are largely peripheral to the bookstore’s move. University of Chicago News Director Steven Kloehn says, “Promoting business in Hyde Park is one of our core values,” and at least in the case of the Co-op’s relocation, the situation is win-win. The University acquires a historic building conveniently located right across from the main quadrangles, while the Co-op gets a much more open and accessible space that can be tailored to fit its specific needs.
After careful deliberation by a panel of bookstore staff and University administrators and students, the architectural firm Tigerman-McCurry was chosen to overhaul the McGiffert House. Stanley Tigerman, who is spearheading the project, is a native Chicagoan and a long time member of the Co-op. Tigerman and the Co-op share a common approach. As the bookstore’s current general manager Jack Cella puts it, “Tigerman-McCurry was a brilliant choice. Stanley represents what people value in the Co-operative. Local focus. Not glitzy.”
By virtue of its existing condition (i.e. being above ground and having windows) and due to planned renovations, the new space will be a far cry from the cramped and sometimes difficult-to-access basement that currently houses the bookstore. Whereas customers enter the current location either by a forbiddingly steep staircase or a tedious system of ramps and elevators, the McGiffert House’s nearly 9,000 feet of floor space will be more accessible and convenient for members and the community. In a public letter to Co-op members and customers, Cella wrote: “The new store will have windows (imagine that!), will be completely accessible, and will have operational temperature and air circulation controls. We may bring a pipe along for the occasional customer who feels nostalgic for a place to bump his or her head.”
The accessibility of the new space means that hosting authors and events will be more feasible; there are even plans for a cafÃ© where patrons can thumb through their purchases. And at a time when most bookstores have been forced to cut corners and decrease their inventories, the Co-op’s enlarged space will grant it the unique opportunity to expand its already colossal collection of texts. “We’d like to expand our physics section,” says Cella. “And it would be nice to have books in other languages. The challenge is to try to continue what people already value in a place that is just friendlier.”
And though surely some will be nostalgic for the winding corridors and secluded alcoves of the old location, Cella is certain that moving is the best call for the Co-op and its customers. “People are familiar with this space. Many great scholars have come through. It lends itself to people being surprised. But that only works if you have the right books to discover,” Cella asserts. “But we’re not trying to be a big-box store after the move. We will continue to try to be the best store we can for the community.” And while the Co-op’s focus is on providing a better space for the community, the new location adjacent to Frank Lloyd Wright’s visionary Robie House is likely to draw visitors from farther afield as well.
Loyalists to the original labyrinth should be happy to hear that the new space will, to some degree, reflect the quirky feel of the basement that was the bookstore’s home for half a century. Tigerman has summed up the feel of the plan for the new space in a single word: “Books.” His design is based around a series of “figural voids”: islands of structured shelves that readers can physically enter and explore, a new interpretation of the experience of getting lost in a world of books.
So while it’s unlikely that any space could perfectly replicate that intricate web below the seminary, it appears that the Co-op’s move will be less like the end of an era and more like another chapter in the life of a bookstore and the neighborhood that produced it. “We are a creature of this community,” says Cella. “Books are the centerpiece, but we take our flavor from the South Side of Chicago.”