Opening Up

The grinding whir of machinery could still be heard from the front steps of the Seminary Co-op. Just across the road from the bookstore’s new location at 5751 S. Woodlawn, construction was going on seven days a week on the old location. The dust and noise, however, became invisible as soon as the door of the new building closed behind me. The point of the day was not to reminisce about the old, but to celebrate a new beginning–the official grand opening of the Seminary Co-op’s new Woodlawn location.

I got there early in the day-long celebration, a little after its first event: a picture-book reading from local children’s authors. At ten in the morning, the store had not yet grown crowded, except for the little kids who alternated between huddling on the floor of the graphic novel section cradling their books and chasing their friends through the shelves. This breathing space afforded me a good opportunity to speak with the staff members. The first person I had to hear from was, of course, Jack Cella, general manager of the bookstore since time immemorial.

Cella, a dignified man with a closely-cropped white beard, mostly refrains from talking about himself. However, he jumps at the opportunity to talk about his store. “I think it’s a great day to introduce people to the new location and celebrate all the writers and readers who patronize the Co-op and who are its co-owners,” he said. The party was partially to thank the architects who had designed the new location, but more to celebrate the whole Sem Co-op community. He went on at length about the meaning of having a customer-owned store: “It’s just such an exceptional community to be part of.”

A new exhibit at the Regenstein Library, documenting the last days of the Seminary location, shows how deeply people loved the fact that the old Co-op was situated in a labyrinthine basement. But with its more modern and quotidian additions like natural light, space, and a functioning heating system, could there still be magic in the new location?

Rui da Cunha, a ten-year employee of the store, does speak with nostalgia for the old store. “I hope everyone will remember it; it was such an amazing place,” he sighs. But he smiles as he adjusts a crooked layer of books on the new shelves. He explains that the old store was an “organic” creation, one that grew gradually over decades and decades. “Creating that,” he said, “no way could any book store do that without seeming contrived.”

That’s one of the reasons why the new location doesn’t try to ape the old Sem’s look; instead, its design pays homage to the old location while still being very much its own creature. The main floor is spacious and bright; there are chairs to sit on and big windows to look out of, and there is plenty of natural light. That openness, however, did not prevent the designers from finding a way to add some magic to the layout with a few surprising touches.

They grouped bookshelves together in free-standing clusters so as to create a maze like that of Hyde Park lore, but the light from the large windows facing the street ensures that the large room is easy to navigate. Within each cluster, the shelves are arranged so as to create a little alcove. It’s still very possible, then, to slip into an alcove and open up a book, like a child would in her favorite secret corner. It’s a maze that’s not a maze, and corners that aren’t corners–a touch of magic in what is a very modern set-up.

Or perhaps, as nice as it is to admire good design, the magic of the new space has nothing to do with that. Anne Marie Miles, a customer who was roaming the shelves, told me that it was a “terrific” space; she admired the set-up and the nice, big windows. But for her, she explains: “This bookstore represents the soul of the Hyde Park intellectual community…I think the magic is in the selection of books, the people you meet, and the staff. And [here] that all comes through.”