Neuroscientists would have a ball in this bookstore. They’d spot the metaphorical magic right away: Each room is like a separate area of the brain, sporting its own specialty and character. Yet it all functions as a single unit too, a seamless whole composed of exquisite particulars.
The brains behind the Seminary Co-op is, at this moment, sitting in a straight-backed chair and looking far too serene for a man in charge of what many fear is a dying business: the independent bookstore. Jack Cella’s legs are crossed at the knee, and his hands are folded in his lap. He’s wearing what he usually wears: beige chino pants, a pressed pinstriped shirt and loafers.
Cella, 62, is the self-effacing and unflappable general manager of the legendary bookstore, which has two other outlets in Chicago besides the main location in the basement of the Chicago Theological Seminary on the University of Chicago campus.
The Co-op has been a steady, radiant cultural presence in the Chicago area since it was established in 1961, but 2008 brought a distinct upgrade in the store’s cultural cachet. The world suddenly figured out what Hyde Park has known for decades: Cella’s quiet, methodical work habits and his stellar instinct for the books and ideas bound to stir things up have created a sort of scruffy palace of the mind, a jumbled paradise of print.
What made the Co-op an overnight star?
Easy: Barack Obama.
Among the details that a besotted public lapped up about the president-elect was that he’s a frequent customer at the Co-op, which is about half a mile from his home. Obama joined in 1986, and he and his wife and children shop here frequently.
“Just a few days before the election, Barack was in here with his daughters,” Cella recalls in a soft voice. He smiles. “I suppose I should say, ‘the president-elect,’ right? People around here are just so excited.
“There was a crew from ‘Good Morning America’ in here the other day,” he adds. Journalists have been stopping by regularly to get a sense of the place that feeds Obama’s intellectual hunger.
What makes the Co-op appealing to discerning customers such as the Obama family is the atmosphere and eclectic yet also wide-ranging selection of books. Credit for those virtues, many say, belongs to Cella, who has run the place since 1968. The Co-op is like a theme park for the mind: Walking through it, each twist and turn is likely to reveal a new intellectual thrill. You might come across a book you didn’t know existed -- but whose theme instantly intrigues you -- or a book for which you’ve been searching all your life. The store is an adventure in itself, a series of forking, book-lined paths that wind around through room after room after room, and each subsequent area brims with amazing volumes. There is the philosophy room, the religion room, the history room, the language room -- and on and on it goes, an enchanted forest of multicolored spines and preoccupied customers.
The Co-op has about 53,000 members, all of whom joined by buying at least three shares, at $10 a share. Members get a 10% discount on whatever they buy and, occasionally, a dividend at year’s end.
But nobody joins to get rich -- at least, not in material ways. They join because they appreciate the Co-op’s devotion to offering the very latest in academic publishing as well as the enduring classics. Another big lure is the Front Table -- a popular spot filled with Cella’s selections of the important books of the moment.
David Derbes, a physics teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory School and a Co-op board member, calls Cella “a national treasure,” adding, “Jack has an unbelievable knowledge of books and authors. It is nearly impossible to stump him. He has the memory of two elephants. Jack is the bookstore.
“Want the ‘Oxford Classical Text of Tacitus’? ‘Annals’? The standard Freud in German? The Steinsaltz Talmud? A Hittite dictionary? Five volumes of Michael Spivak’s ‘Differential Geometry’? George F. Kennan’s memoirs? Carl Sandburg’s life of Lincoln? Sara Paretsky’s essays? They’re all on the shelves of the Seminary Co-op.”
Katy O’Brien-Weintraub, a lecturer at the University of Chicago, assistant manager of the store and friend of Cella’s since 1975, declares, “Jack is the soul of the bookstore. Many others have contributed to the growth and success of the store, but Jack has made it what it is.”
Virtually all independent bookstores are struggling these days, as chain bookstores muscle their way into local markets and Internet sites such as Amazon.com continue to chip away at sales in bricks-and-mortar bookstores. In 2007, the three stores that make up the Co-op racked up about $6 million in sales, with about $4.5 million of that coming from the Seminary Co-op location. These are decent numbers -- but not enough to enable Cella and his board members to relax.
“This past summer was difficult,” Cella admits. But he remains optimistic -- and not just because, as O’Brien-Weintraub notes, the store expects to get a lot of mail-order requests from the new folks at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
“What gives me hope about the future of the book,” Cella says, quietly but emphatically, “is meeting first-year students [at the University of Chicago]. They are very interested in books and value them as part of their education. A bookstore can be so stimulating.
“If you’re in a decent bookstore,” Cella adds, looking around at the well-stocked shelves that crowd around him like murmuring Druids, “you can look at any shelf and realize how little you know. I can’t imagine life without reading.”