Cooperatives have increased in popularity with the ever growing “green” movement and turn to healthy living. Yet, this co-op does not sell food or make food, but you could possible find books on these subjects here.
The Seminary Co-Op is located in Hyde Park, Chicago on the campus of the University of Chicago. Founded in 1961, the bookstore has always been a cooperative business. At the beginning the business had 17 member-owners, but now counts over 50,000 members! It’s no surprise that cooperative has grown so much in 50 plus years of business. The Seminary Co-Op truly cares about the local community and strives to provide the best bookstore experience.
The store’s website states its mission as:
“To serve the diverse reading needs of the University and Hyde Park communities. We believe that our passionately local focus in this unique community of readers has made our vision of bookstores appealing to readers throughout the world.”
Mysterious Maze of Books
Originally the Seminary Co-Op was located in the basement of the Chicago Theological Seminary building (the origin of the store’s name). Hidden away, the store bore an air of mystery and secret.
The basement location did not offer much in the way of organization, but the employees did their best. It was this chaotic gathering of shelves and books, however, that gave the Seminary Co-Op a reputation. At first glance the shelves appeared to be haphazardly organized; it was complete madness. But as the saying goes — there was method to this madness. In fact, if you learned the mystery of the basement labyrinth you could discover fantastic books secreted away in corners that you would not otherwise find in “brand-name” stores.
Such a magical discovery is exactly what occurred on my first trip to the Seminary Co-Op in 2010. A friend, who attended the University of Chicago, urged me to visit the Seminary Co-Op. We shared an immense love of books and, naturally, it was assumed I would enjoy the odd, basement store. He was right, as friends often are.
Although it was many years ago, I can still remember the maze of shelves standing before me as I breathed in the damp, wonderful smell of books and basement. To this day, I remember wandering the aisles (if they could be called that) only to discover a book that appealed to collegiate me.
Do you remember where you bought all of your books? I certainly do not. But I do remember stumbling upon The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser tucked away on a shelf in the area categorized as “Anthropology.” The details of the book are a bit vague these days, but the experience of finding, buying and first cracking the book open are the signs of a fantastic bookstore experience!
The Seminary Co-Op now runs out of a new, above-ground location in Hyde Park, but the maze of shelves still exists.
Walking into the store, one believes it will be organized like any other with a front table and horizontally situated aisles. Upon further inspection, cubes of books are found as shelves come together to form three sides boxes. Everything is well marked (if you pay attention), so you can skip the exploratory visit and get down to business.
Even though the layout of the store echoes the labyrinth of the basement, the
new location creates a breathable experience. The basement smell has been replaced with natural light flooding through floor to ceiling windows. Walking through the store comes as close to walking through an outdoor market as you can get inside a concrete building.
This open air experience is mirrored by the newly open cafe across the hall, appropriately called Plein Air (means outdoor in French). This cafe, the new “it” lunch spot on campus, serves delicious pour over coffee, scrumptious food and an outdoor space to rival any restaurant. Go ahead, relax with a cup of coffee in Plein Air after you find that special book in the Seminary Co-Op.
The physical space of the Seminary Co-Op is not its only quality. The store stocks a wide range of books from literary fiction and poetry to references and non-fiction of all varieties. There are even course books for the University of Chicago in the basement, if you want to see what the nerdy students are reading.
If you cannot find what you’re looking for, the staff are often willing to help you locate it. I’m sure they may even order it for you (I’ve never asked). But it is hard to imagine you cannot find something of interest, even if it’s not what you were looking for, among the sun-drenched shelves. Each time I go to buy course books, I stare at the floor from door to basement just so I do not get distracted by unique covers and interesting titles!
The Seminary Co-Op also hosts a variety of events. I cannot comment on them, as I’ve never been in attendance. Perhaps that will be a goal for this year before I graduate.
Overall, the Seminary Co-Op provides a memorable bookstore experience that students, faculty and residents will confirm.
The next time you are in Chicago, take a trip down to Hyde Park to visit the Seminary Co-Op. Support a local, cooperative business! Who knows — the maze of shelves may just lead you to the perfect book that you will remember buying years later!
*Disclosure: I have been a member-owner of the Seminary Co-Op for less than a year.