Hysteria Complicated by Ecstasy

Last week, the University of Houston bade a prolonged farewell to their century-old football stadium.  Speeches were given, mournful music was played, people payed good money to own pieces of concrete strung along a necklace. President Hutchins unceremoniously submerged a Division One football program underneath a colossal Stalinist book-storage facility in 1957. So if the University of Chicago has had an equivalent moment of bittersweet, tear-stained transition it probably occurred on November 19th at 11:00 AM. The moment when the Seminary Co-op, for fifty years Hyde Park’s most beloved bookseller, migrated a whole block.

A mass of onlookers bunched on the far side of University Avenue for the procession. There was pomp and circumstance. Students emerged one last time from the sacred, subterranean space clasping books, which were to be symbolically marched to the new turf. A bagpipe player complete with kilt, beard, and flowing black locks struck up a solemn tune. He looked a little more like an 18th century buccaneer than a man just in from the moor, but the effect was undoubtedly fine.

There was no shortage of academic glitterati on hand. Dean Boyer made the rounds, Tom Holt held forth, and David Bevington beamed genially at everyone within range. As the assemblage trudged resignedly away from the once divine construction zone destined to become the “Becker-Friedman Institute For Economic Research,” former Co-op Board Member David Durbes recounted the reasoning behind the move. “They basically made us an offer we couldn’t refuse” he said, before hastily adding “but the university recognized just how important we were to the community and said ‘we’ll cover the costs. ’” Who precisely these administrative Sopranos were remained unclear, but as we drew near the Booth School, the group paused abruptly, and blackbeard stopped piping.

The new Co-op’s exterior is definitely a departure: think less towering Gothic cathedral of the mind, more dreary seventies apartment complex.

Jack Cella, the man universally acknowledged as the Co-op’s guiding spirit, delivered a brief welcome on the front lawn “We’re in a somewhat unique situation today” he intoned. “Many of you are not only our customers but also the authors of the books that we sell.” In honor of this ongoing special relationship, many of the attending scribes queued up to ritually deposit their work on the Co-op’s fabled front table.

Dean Boyer sidled up to drop his hefty volume on Austro-Hungarian politico Karl Luger, David Bevington gingerly placed his most recent brief on Hamlet,  “Murder Most Foul,” on the table, political scientist John Paget seemed to have brought along his own personal cheering section, and intellectual historian Jan Goldstein produced a volume mystifyingly entitled  “Hysteria Complicated by Ecstasy.” At this point, though, the crowd was chomping at the bit and Cella thought it prudent to bring them into the building in groups of ten, the better to avoid a bibliophilic stampede.

Once inside, the groups fanned out along the sunlit shelves and soon fell into slack-jawed trances. They didn’t always appreciate being awoken. College fourth-year Blake Daniels, a chemistry major eyeing a career in independent film, was beyond pleased with the new layout. “I came in really skeptical, but they definitely pulled it off,” said Daniels. “The feel of just being overrun with books and just getting lost is here. And that’s what you want with the Co-op. “

While longtime Co-op devotees may miss the romance of a winding, endless cavern crammed with volumes, the new format simply accommodates more shelf space than the old one ever could. Plus there are still plenty of exposed pipes on the ceiling.

Renowned legal scholar Allison LaCroix, (who had received a shout-out from Sella earlier as “57th street books’ favorite customer”) was glad there would still be a place where her children could be awed by the variety and sheer physical presence of the written word. Shimmering tablets wouldn’t cut it for her. “I’m a book person” she confessed as a grin overtook her features. “Don’t you just love this new book smell?”

Though the jump to the new location was a long time in the planning, it’s been a tough landing to stick. Assistant manager Richard Barnard said that the furniture for the store’s all-important information desk was being specially constructed in New Jersey when it lost a fight with Hurricane Sandy. “So, we’re going to be improvising for a little while” he said.  Still, after fifty years, nothing keeps the blood pumping like a little mid-life crisis.

When asked about the logistics of moving tens of thousands of books, longtime Co-op employee Katy O’Brien is quick to issue a correction “It’s actually over a hundred thousand titles.”  The morning’s book lugging had been mostly ceremonial, she explained, they needed a team of professionals to move the precious cargo. “They were amazing” O’Brien went on “They just came in and stripped the shelves like locusts.”

O’Brien has been around the academic page-peddling block a few times.  She’s been keeping the Co-op’s books (the less fun, financial ones anyway) for 25 years. So the natural question to ask her is how do the contents of the Sem Coop stack up against the competition in Berkeley, New Haven, or Durham? She doesn’t bat an eyelash. “We’re better. ”