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image: Campus NewsThe Seminary Co-op turns another page
It started simply-14 people pitching in $10 each to get 100 books and a basement space. Over the years it has developed into one of the University's most cherished assets, with 110,000 books and 45,000 shareholders from more than 50 countries. On October 17 the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, on 58th Street and University Avenue, turned 40.

PHOTO:  Jack Cella at the Seminary Co-op

As one of the few remaining cooperative, independent, academic bookstores, it is a member of an endangered species, struggling to survive amid the multiplying corporate chains. But the Co-op, bucking all prevailing bookstore trends-it doesn't serve coffee, for instance-thrives. Why?

Longtime manager Jack Cella attributes the store's success partially to its passionately local focus. Its mission, unchanged from its early days, is to serve the diverse reading needs of the University and Hyde Park communities. Cella believes the store's nearly iconic popularity among serious book lovers nationally and internationally is merely a by-product of this local service. "By serving Hyde Park's book needs," he says, "we've become attractive to a certain type of person."

"I think it's the best academic bookstore in the country, and I've visited virtually every one of them," says Robert Pippin, the Raymond W. and Martha Hilpert Gruner distinguished service professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the College-and a frequent Co-op customer. "If it's an important enough book, the Co-op will have it."

Indeed Cella is viewed by some as an arbiter of academia. When Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade professor in the Divinity School and the College, saw that Cella had grouped history of religion books with those in the anthropology section, she concluded that "all our efforts to keep the two disciplines separate had failed. If Jack saw that they were the same, they were the same."

What's more, adds Pippin, having the Co-op nearby is like having the assistance of a trusted colleague. One challenge for academics is trying to keep up with the flood of books being published in their fields. In most cases this means sifting through an ever-growing number of catalogs from publishers. The Co-op expedites this process.

"Jack and the staff know the faculty here. They have a real sense of intelligence and taste, and they know good books," says Pippin. "I can trust that if it's not on the front table at the Co-op, it's probably not worth reading."

The store's reputation in bookish circles has made it the envy of academia. Cella was once courted by Columbia University provost Jonathan Cole, who wanted him to open a similar bookstore in Morningside Heights. He declined, but eventually two New Yorkers created Labyrinth Books, an academic bookstore inspired by the Co-op.

Yet anyone who has visited the Co-op knows that its maze-like basement setting is nearly inimitable-and that's part of its appeal. "The maze is quite wonderful," says Doniger. "It's mysterious. I sometimes wonder if someone will find a lost professor."

While little of the interior has changed in the basement during the past 40 years, the Seminary Co-op has grown. The bookstore added 57th Street Books and a Newberry Library branch, A. C. McClurg Bookstore, as well as an online bookselling arm (www.semcoop.com).

Looking beyond 40, Cella hopes to further improve the store. His wish list includes more space-for books in other languages, for instance-and a separate store exclusively for children's books. "People are appreciative," says Cella of the Hyde Park patrons, "but they're also demanding. We can always do better."
-Josh Schonwald



 


  DECEMBER 2001

  > > Volume 94, Number 2


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