Wesley Hill and Brett Foster

The New Seminary Co-op.

On bookstores, books, and reading.

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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.

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