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One to watch this fall: Seminary Co-op Bookstore has outlived the superstore assault

Leaving behind the longtime digs graced by Saul Bellow and the president of the Dominican Republic

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Hyde Park's Seminary Co-op is one of the best academic bookstores in the country—and also one of the clunkiest. Located since 1961 in the basement of the Chicago Theological Seminary, 5757 S. University, it's a warren of narrow pathways and low-hanging pipes. Taped, color-coded lines on the floor lead to towering shelves of theology or literature. Take a wrong turn and you may end up at the iron base of an organ bellows built by the Spencer Turbine Company.

The Co-op has outlived the superstore assault and is holding its own against online competitors, according to longtime general manager Jack Cella. Still, the current location has obvious disadvantages. So when the University of Chicago bought the Seminary building, the creature in the basement was ready for more modern digs. The U. of C. is paying for the store's transfer to a building a block away, at 5751 S. Woodlawn, where the revamped first floor will include wheelchair accessibility and a separately run coffee shop—a notable concession for a store often described with the phrase "No coffee, no knickknacks, just books."

Moving day at the moment is November 1. Meanwhile, two Co-op members, Jasmine Kwong and Megan Doherty, are working on a documentary project, compiling images and recollections of the soon-to-be old space. The bulk of their collection will be archived at the U. of C. library, but a sample is currently installed at the Theological Seminary, strung down a wall in one its brooding hallways.

Charmingly amateurish, the display features photographs of browsers, books, and more books stuck next to scrawled effusions by students and community members. Longer, typewritten anecdotes are sprinkled throughout. One recounts how Saul Bellow accidentally stumbled into the employees-only area, prompting a starstruck undergraduate to burst into tears. Another concerns semiregular visits by the president of the Dominican Republic, who'd clean out the economics section while his security detail stood wedged among the stacks.

It's hard to avoid noticing that none of the customers in the photographs are African-Americans—a reminder that Hyde Park's town/gown fissure continues to be uncomfortably inflected by race. Still, the display is a fitting testament to an amazing bookstore. It's sad to see the Co-op leave the home where it grew up, but I'm looking forward to visiting the new space, coffee shop and all.

Seminary Co-op Bookstore documentary project display
Through Thu 11/1, Mon-Fri, 8:30 AM-8 PM, Sat, 10 AM-6 PM, Sun, noon-6 PM, 5757 S. University, 773-752-4381, semcoop.com, free.

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