Article

Wesley Hill and Brett Foster


The New Seminary Co-op.

On bookstores, books, and reading.

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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.

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