Last week, the Seminary Co-op Bookstore officially opened in its new location, at 5751 South Woodlawn Avenue. The move from the former Chicago Theological Seminary—slated to reopen as the University’s Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics—brings to an end a half-century of prominence for one of the most beloved and storied basements in America. Picking up books for classes, sadly, will never be quite the same. Yet, even as we mourn for the labyrinth of yesteryear, we hope for a bright future for both the Co-op and the building it once called home.
Most readers of this paper don’t need to be told why the Sem Co-op holds such a special place in the collective imagination of this University and this neighborhood. Its maze-like stacks were legendary for encouraging wandering and serendipitous discovery; its front table was always a good bet for finding a new and exciting volume. With over 120,000 titles in the humanities and social sciences alone, it’s hard to question its reputation as one of the best academic bookstores in the world. And between its helpful staff and cooperative ownership, which over the years has included thousands of students, faculty, and staff, it has engendered a sense of community that few shops can match.
Many of the faces at the new store, of course, will be the same. More than 50,000 people worldwide will continue to be proud stockholders. Yet, nice as the Woodlawn space is, with its ample natural light and warm wooden shelving, much of the magic, inevitably, has been lost. We’ll never have our favorite literary cave back.
But that doesn’t mean the new Co-op has to be just another bookstore. The new location has almost 10,000 square feet of floor space, more than double the old location’s 4,000. We hope the managers utilize this advantage, as well as the store’s inviting ground-level spot on a bustling street, to enhance the store’s already considerable prestige. We like the fact that the new location will have reading areas and a café; these should be used as a means to engage the neighborhood. The management has already announced plans to host author talks, but it should consider holding social events, such as open mic nights, book clubs, and other community gatherings, to help ensure that the Co-op continues to be a cornerstone of Hyde Park.
The former Theological Seminary building likewise presents a chance to open a space to a wider audience. Although most UChicago students knew its basement well, fewer have explored the spectacular rooms, cloisters, and corridors of the rest of the building. It would be a shame if only econ students and Becker Friedman staff got to enjoy them. Along these lines, we urge the University to create common spaces, such as reading rooms, so that all may benefit from the newest addition to campus.
It would also be particularly unfortunate if the building lost its original splendor. Preservation Chicago put the building on its “7 Most Threatened” list in 2011 thanks largely to the removal of several priceless stained-glass windows. While doing renovations, the University should diligently protect the Seminary’s aesthetic and historic heritage. If possible, it should restore the windows; this community is mature enough to contextualize the religious iconography that prompted their removal.
Change, as per usual, is not easy. This move, in particular, is a difficult loss; a piece of our shared history is gone. That being said, we hope that all involved—the Seminary Co-op, the University, and all those who call this place home—work to make these new and renovated spaces just as valuable to future generations as the old Co-op was to us.
The Editorial Board consists of the Editors-in-Chief and the Viewpoints editors.