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It’s official: Next year the Co-op Bookstore will move out of the unique, beloved basement of the Chicago Theological Seminary it has occupied for just shy of 50 years into a larger location designed for the bookstore.
The University will pay for renovations at McGiffert House, a block east of the Co-op’s current location, as well as moving fees and the shelves themselves. The move is slated to take place at the end of 2011—50 years after the Co-op was founded—and is aimed at keeping the store healthy and competitive.
“It was an easy, very easy decision,” manager Jack Cella said. “The University has been great about it. It’ll be above ground and completely accessible, with windows, more space, and better temperature control.”
The move to 5751 South Woodlawn Avenue had been hinted at during the end of spring quarter, amid controversial plans to re-purpose the building that currently houses the Co-op, 5757 South University Avenue. The University plans to convert that space into the home of the Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics (MFIRE), a new institution opposed by a significant and vocal proportion of the faculty. The University bought both buildings in 2008.
The University faces an architectural challenge as well as the ideological opposition in converting the building. 5757 currently houses the Chicago Theological Seminary—which gives the bookstore its name—and a number of stained glass windows and other architectural detailing speak to that use. The stained glass and other architecturally significant aspects may not survive the renovations necessary to convert the building into MFIRE; they may move, along with the Theological Seminary, to a new building on 60th Street and Dorchester Avenue, currently under construction.
With its precipitous stairway-cum-entrance, serpentine layout, bare cement floors, and often low-hanging ceiling, part of the fun of browsing at the Co-op has been feeling a bit claustrophobic amid the thousands of high-brow books. It served as the inspiration for Labyrinth Books, an independent chain with a similar feel that serves the Columbia, Yale, and Princeton communities (the Columbia branch later split off, and has changed its name to BookCulture).
“A lot of work will have to be done on it to make it attractive and inviting,” Cella said of the Co-op’s future home. But in spite the Co-op’s singular design, Cella had no hesitations about the move. He noted that the bookstore’s floor-space will more than double, from 4,000 square feet to 10,000, affording more space for windows, ease of browsing, and a proper heating and cooling system.
A dedicated space for events will hopefully lead to more and larger events as well, Cella said. “We hope to get student groups involved with the space as well.” He also mentioned talk of an independent café in the building, but said that would be up to the University.
Those benefits far outweigh the costs of the move, Cella said. “It will be strange not coming into the basement, but, as you can imagine, for the long-term health for the Co-op...it’s better.”
Cella said the University’s investment in the move would not affect its independent status, which Vice-President for Strategic Initiatives David Greene echoed. “Seminary Co-op is an important part of our community, one that shares some of our most basic values as a University, one that is important to our faculty and students. We are delighted that we can help keep the Co-op as a thriving presence on our campus,” Greene said in a press release.
Cella said he didn’t think the bookstore’s new location further from campus would drive away customers or browsers, equating the walk with the current steep entry to the store. “What we have to do is make sure we produce a good bookstore for what students want, for what neighbors want,” Cella said.
And while it’s clear the experience is an integral part of shopping at the Co-op and its sister stores, 57th Street Books and the off-campus Newberry Library Bookstore, the experience is not its only draw.
“I like the ambiance of it,” said Curtis Lawrence, a former resident of Hyde Park and current Co-op member who returns to shop at 57th Street Books and the Co-op. “It’s one of the few cooperative bookstores around. I like that I can sit down and read. I like that it’s community-supported.”
Lawrence, who was entering the Co-op on September 8 when he was interviewed, didn’t know the specifics of the move, and wouldn’t speculate on whether a change of atmosphere would make him less likely to come. But he expressed reservations over how the University handled property issues south of the Midway, mentioning among other issues the recent relocation of the 61st Street farmer’s market.
Asked if he thought the University was making a good gesture by paying for the move, Lawrence agreed.
“Yeah, that’s a good gesture,” he said, before pausing and adding, with a laugh, “considering they want the space for something else themselves.”