Article

Wesley Hill and Brett Foster


The New Seminary Co-op.

On bookstores, books, and reading.

Editor's note: Regular readers of Books & Culture will be familiar with Wesley Hill, who has just completed his first year as assistant professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, and Brett Foster, associate professor of English at Wheaton College. Here they exchange letters occasioned by a recent visit to the relocated Seminary Co-Op Bookstore in Hyde Park. A second exchange of letters will be posted next week.

Dear Brett,
Shortly after I moved to Durham, England to begin doctoral studies, I signed up to help the great New Testament scholar James (or "Jimmy," as he's known to colleagues and students alike) Dunn pack up his library. The Lightfoot Professor was retiring to Chichester, to be nearer his grandchildren, and the three thousand volumes he'd acquired over the course of his illustrious career had to be boxed up and left for the movers on the ground floor of his creaky, labyrinthine old house. Before we began the task, the other volunteers—mostly New Testament students, eager for a chance to pick Dunn's brain as we worked—and I strode awestruck through the shelf-lined rooms. Books occupied every corner, rainbowed every wall. The haphazardness, the disordered glory of it all, was delightful and, perhaps in an odd way, comforting. You had the feeling that if you weren't there to help pack, you'd like to brew a cup of coffee, hole up in one of the rooms, and lose yourself among the sagging rows and teetering stacks.

Contrast that scene with another library experience I had recently. For the first time, I visited the office of a writer whom I've long admired—a wide-ranging, astonishingly insatiable reader. Judging from his published work, I expected his collection of books to look like Dunn's, but no. All was neat, proportioned, well-ordered, like that landscape Hopkins describes as "plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough." My mind registered it as (although I'm sure it wasn't really) color-coded and alphabetized.

These two scenes come to mind as I think back on our recent trip to the newly relocated Seminary Co-Op Bookstore in Hyde Park. You know of my nostalgic fondness for the old store, in the bowels of the Chicago Theological Seminary. The thing I loved most about it, perhaps, was that feeling I had in Dunn's house: the feeling of time slowing down, the feeling of being drawn in by the books and losing yourself amid the impossibly narrow corridors. Descending the staircase and ducking to avoid hitting your head on the pipes that snaked along the ceilings, you felt in the old Co-Op not unlike the gambler who enters the windowless caverns of a casino, oblivious to the passing hours and greedy for gain.

(My first visit to the Co-Op was during my undergraduate days. A car-full of us Ancient Languages majors at Wheaton College drove into the city and spent the morning triangulating between, first, the Co-Op and then Ex Libris—the sadly defunct theological used bookstore that formerly occupied the corner of East 55th Street and South Lake Park Avenue—and, finally, Powell's. I left with a copy of Oliver O'Donovan's Resurrection and Moral Order, a purchase that proved to be a milestone in my theological pilgrimage.)

The new store, by contrast, is awash in light. The day you and I visited, parking on the corner of South Woodlawn and East 55th and walking in from the north, had turned cloudy, but the store's interior was incongruously luminous, the plate glass windows uncurtained and the maplewood floors and shelves polished and reflective. There is ample space in the hallways, and a few well-placed chairs invite lingering. No longer are the books crammed in floor to ceiling—remember how there was not even room for your finger between the top of the books on one shelf and the shelf immediately above them at the last location?—and gone are the nooks and corners barely wide enough for one browser.

I probably sound as though I'm complaining, and I suppose I am. Admittedly, I miss the hushed, cloistered atmosphere of the previous place. But as you and I discussed, Brett, the new place has many virtues. The rectangular shelves in the middle of the store's main section—virtually bookstores unto themselves, mazy and interlocking—are strikingly artful, a testimony to the brilliance of the new Co-Op's architect, whose oeuvre includes the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. And what's lost in claustrophobic charm is made up for by the larger spaces which could host readings, lectures, and book club meetings. I was also pleased to find the Theology and Biblical Studies sections have, if anything, been expanded, packed with even more hard-to-find titles and forgotten treasures. The wall of Loeb Classics is perhaps even more impressive in the new location than it was in the last, covering a third of the back wall of the secluded History room. And the new arrivals table is as bountiful as ever; flanked by the display shelves highlighting a few especially prominent titles, it struck me as more beguiling than in the old store.

As you and I left the Co-Op that day, we stopped to snap pictures of the store's front and its new, backlit signage—remember that? It felt a little amateurish, indulging the fan-boy impulse. But maybe it signaled the start of something pleasant, something akin to the post-college days when the comfort of an old circle of friends doesn't exactly fade but instead, one hopes, becomes expanded. Perhaps, in a few years, the nostalgia I feel about my first undergraduate book-hunting excursion at the Co-Op won't have gone away but will be accompanied by a new memory, like a new friend welcomed into the old circle. I know I'll visit the Co-Op again, when I'm next in Chicago, and I expect it might feel like the deepening of a new acquaintance.

Here's hoping,
Wesley

*****
Dear Wes,
Hello, and I hope this hastily sent note finds you well. Receiving your letter yesterday gave me no small pleasure, not only for its invitation to think again about our recent Sunday-afternoon visit to the Seminary Co-Op in Hyde Park, which in its new location (as much as in the old) remains one of the country's premier bookstores, but also for the wonderful personal history of book-admiring and book-buying that you shared, and which I savored with you. Limited time meant that we had to resign ourselves to a single destination on that Sunday jaunt to the city, and your idea to visit the new Seminary Co-Op was an inspired one. I had been intending to visit the new location for some time, and I live only 45 minutes away—not, like you, three states distant. So, thank you: first, for the excursion, and, second, for this occasion to rehearse the afternoon and exchange impressions of the store and some of the books we found there, and a few thoughts on books, bookstores, and book culture generally. It goes without saying that this is a happy task we have set for ourselves.

I loved your opening parallel between the state of professors' and writers' personal libraries and the style of bookstore that seems to suit them best. It makes me think of those photos of people with pets that strangely resemble them, or that slight embarrassment of meeting a couple who look strikingly like siblings. With books, too, we seek out what we desire to find, and soon enough we reflect what we have sought. The contrast between old and new Seminary Co-Ops could not be more apt— the old store with its nooks, corners, pipes, and warren of aisles did indeed exhibit the "disordered glory" of the first collection you described, while the new store, well, if it was not carefully color-coded and alphabetized - all professionalism and spacious tidiness - then it was surely close to that.

Like you, I'm not exactly complaining about the new setting. It's just different, and will take some getting used to. I suspect it will be a pleasant enough adjustment as older memories give way to more recent ones, spaced out across multiple visits. Then, when we think of "Seminary Co-Op," this new, big-windowed building with its lighter woods and airy spaces will happily come to mind. And let's be grateful that the Seminary Co-Op, during these turbulent times for booksellers, has managed to keep its doors, or different doors, open.

Florence Green, the protagonist in Penelope Fitzgerald's novel The Bookstore, thinks back to her time as an assistant 25 years earlier at a store called Müller's. The novel opens with her wishing to open a bookstore in the little town of Hardborough, a wish partially explained by the old store's pending closing. Green is planning to buy Müller's stock: "She managed to say this resolutely, although she had felt the closure as a personal attack on her memories." So now, Wes, your rich memories of undergrad book-hunting will have to relocate a bit, but at least they are not attacked—rendered homeless, left to be strangers in a strange Hyde Park land with no Seminary Co-Op whatsoever.

Here are a few of my impressions of the new location. It's still right in the heart of the University of Chicago community. That is a good thing. And it's quite nearby Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House. That proximity could make for a wonderful pairing for the enterprising day-tripper. I, too, was taken aback at first by all of that glass. It's about as intentionally different from the previous place, that subterranean Hobbit-hovel of a shop, as could be imagined. The new place reminds me of a house you're likely to see in the background of a David Hockney painting. Some sleek, modern L.A. edifice. You walk in to a big unfinished space on the right side, which I have heard will soon be a café, and then there is an atrium, presenting you with lit-up glass cabinets filled with featured books. That space leads to the front of the store and that grand table display of new releases.

What were some of the books that first caught your eye? "Never read any book that is not at least a year old," Emerson says, a remark that sounds sagacious but is SO worth ignoring! Hey, that's a fine rule if he wished to follow it, but as for me, there's nothing as pleasing as a book that has just been released, one either totally anticipated or arriving under the radar. I was most curious, on our Sunday there, about a new biography of Josephus; a monograph entitled Scholarship, Commerce, and Religion; Andrew Piper's Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times; and (as I drifted from the new books) nearby in the "Chicago" section, A Theater of Our Own: A History and a Memoir of 1,001 Nights in Chicago. Only toward the end of our visit did I encounter two books that remind me why I love the pair of subject areas I try to specialize in—Stephen Alford's biography of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who was a powerful, long-serving counselor of Elizabeth I, and the poet and critic James Longenbach's new prose collection, The Virtues of Poetry.

I don't know about you, Wes, but I always experience ambivalent feelings when first surveying the Seminary Co-Op's new book table. Great excitement, of course, including the chance to paw and peruse some new books I've been hearing about as well as a handful of titles that, being entirely new to me, catch me by surprise. (These are two reasons that Amazon and other online stores, despite their cost-effectiveness, timeliness, and convenience, will never replace the best brick-and-mortar stores; book buyers need to be able to examine in person what they are looking for—or at least they prefer to—and to discover what they didn't even know they were looking for.)

On the other hand, a real queasiness can also wash over you as you behold so many new books, some of which you're dying to read, though you have no idea when you'll manage to find the time. ("Why increase the bedside stack?" you think to yourself, depressed.) There are others that you have no interest in reading, and it irks you, or at best leaves you puzzled, that so many others must feel differently if a publisher has taken the trouble to release them. You think, "A new book on that subject, really?" or "Wow, another book by him?" But mainly I'd never miss a chance for a half hour at the Co-Op's new-book display, reading this volume's table or contents or checking the index in some cases. I'd be lying if I said otherwise.

Maybe we can take comfort in the fact that Robert Burton, even with his excellent, capacious mind, felt these same conflicting feelings. His 17th century was a time of print saturation and information overload, and so Burton writes somewhere in The Anatomy of Melancholy of the "vast chaos and confusion of books." However, then he turns around and speaks glowingly of a book as "the best nepenthe, surest cordial, sweetest alternative, presentest diverter."

I love that last phrase, "presentest diverter." I suppose Burton means that, among various sorts of diversion, books, or maybe we need to say good books, delight us uniquely by demanding our most engrossed, in-the-moment attention. This may be what you're getting at when you describe that feeling of time slowing down, which I imagine will be familiar to many readers, especially ones who love to pass more time than they originally planned looking around bookstores. Your casino metaphor is wonderful, by the way. It parallels to a troubling degree that focus on a "fix" that book-lovers crave, that hope for a jackpot. Maybe you'll finally locate that book you've been seeking for years, or maybe you'll find something unexpected. Even as you're purchasing it, you cannot yet know that it will change your life.

I've been reading Julian Barnes' Through the Window. I knew good times were ahead when I saw that his preface was entitled, "A Life with Books." He recounts how he became in adolescence an avid book-hunter and how he still accumulates books today. Books taught him that there were other worlds besides his little one in Northwood, Middlesex. Books helped him to imagine for the first time what it would be like to be someone else (not an impractical budding awareness for a future novelist), and how intimate the bond could become between a writer's voice and the reader's head that holds it. "When you read a great book, you don't escape from life, you plunge deeper into it," Barnes writes at the end of his preface, after giving a charming account of journeying to Salisbury, Petersfield, Aylesbury, Southport, Cheltenham, and Guildford, "getting into back rooms and warehouses and storesheds whenever I could." His hunger for book-buying, he says, he now recognizes as a kind of neediness. That should give all of us pause, don't you think, Wes? From the most dedicated bibliophile to the hardest-working scholar.

Well, let me end this letter of mine on a more upbeat, functional note, by reporting on two positive presences in the new Seminary Co-Op that will be important to serious browsers. First, you mentioned the well-placed chairs, and I hereby declare that the row of red chairs in the very front of the store are most excellent places for time to slow down or, as it would seem, fall entirely away. (It falls away briefly, says the paradoxologist.) I found myself on that Sunday hovering at length over the "Books on Books" section (fittingly enough), just across from the "Chicago" section by the Co-Op's front windows. Maybe I'll say more about some of the books available there if we continue this correspondence. For now, let me commend that particular space as optimal for in-store reading—afternoon light bathing you as you take a break from walking and standing, one of those red chairs, whose brightness is easily seen from Woodlawn Street, awaiting you, or maybe that cute wooden desk in the corner, although it seems a touch serious for browser's reading.

Second, and perhaps most important, I can report on something you failed to mention—the clean, spacious bathrooms just around the corner. Time may slow down, and even seem to be suspended entirely, but for the body, this is not so. The body, to redeploy Julian Barnes' phrase above, does not escape from life. And so it is a thoughtful thing, a tiny but by no means inconsequential thing, to find such accommodating furniture and facilities in this new store.

Yours fondly,
Brett
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