Thursday, December 17, 2009

Seminary Coop

I believe we can trace our contemporary notion of what a good general bookstore should look like to a Newsweek article that appeared sometime in the mid-eighties. As far as I know, it was the first national media report on the amazing things Joyce Meskis and her staff were doing at the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver.

The store was operating on three levels in a former department store, business was booming, and the number of titles on the shelves was hard to believe. In the days before big box retailing, 40,000 square feet of books was a revelation. (Such a revelation that the big chains promptly stole the idea and over the next couple decades rolled out hundreds of inferior carbon copies using the Tattered Cover as a prototype.)

But the other thing that Newsweek found so innovative was the idea of giving patrons a place to sit. This bookstore had chairs and sofas scattered throughout the shop! Brilliant!

Though big business always takes the soul out of an idea when they co-opt it, it’s been hard to argue with what that initial TC model has wrought. If you think about what constitutes a typical good bookstore today, elements that come to mind probably include lots of parking, lots of space, lots of natural light, soothing music, a coffee bar, lots of interesting sidelines, bold signage inside and out, power aisles that direct you to bestsellers, deals and come-ons galore, and plenty of places to sit and strew magazines and newspapers about.

I just had my spring appointment with the finest academic bookshop in the country, and, paradoxically, it is the design antithesis of the model store described above. A true cooperative with 35,000 member owners from all over the world, the Coop is housed in the basement of the lovely old Chicago Theological Seminary building on the University of Chicago campus.

The outside signage is, well, subdued. Once inside, you head down a steep, narrow flight of stairs and enter a space that puts me in mind of a new spring title on the Yale list, Churchill’s Bunker. You are surrounded by twisting aisles encased in floor to ceiling bookshelves.

Speaking of ceiling, watch your head! Have you seen “Being John Malkovich?” Enough said. A bookseller once mentioned that former Chicago Superintendent of Schools (and current Education Secretary) Arne Duncan, who is a 6’5” former pro basketball player and a store regular, “sometimes had to stoop a little” when he came in. A little?

But any slight physical challenges are quickly forgiven if you are a booklover. Seminary Coop is a shrine to books, and books alone. There are no sidelines whatsoever. Their absence makes you realize how accustomed we’ve become to seeing bookstores loaded up with “non-book product.” (Though I reserve the right to be inconsistent and to celebrate some clever examples thereof in future posts). Well-organized, extremely tidy, this is not some dusty eccentric bookshop with piles of unsorted mess all over the floor.

It can be a tight squeeze at times, no getting around that. I remember a bookstore consultant once at Schwartz Bookshops who warned us about “ass brush factor.” Yes, this is an actual term of art among retail design pros. It refers to the problem of making a customer feel comfortable browsing a shelf when there are too many people trying to get past him or her from behind. It becomes psychologically intolerable and the customer moves on. Alas, the Coop fails the ass brush standard completely, but customers are willing to pay that price.

The quality of natural light? Moot point, because there is none. There are no windows at all. But the artificial light is of excellent quality, a subject more stores should be paying better attention to as the average age of their customers continues to climb. And even on a frigid Chicago morning, the space is toasty warm and cozy.

But the essential thing is the books. On offer: scholarly titles, new and old, from everywhere on every subject, intelligently arranged and smartly displayed.

With all the energy retailers put into brain-storming and playing with merchandising schemes, it’s wonderful to see the old school charm and power of simple stacks of books on a large wooden table. Aside from a selection of quirky, small format, brainy impulse titles at the checkout, the main book display- “the Front Table”- is the focus of the store. (It’s cleverly replicated and regularly updated on the semcoop website) Anyone who doubts whether any creative publishing is being done anymore should spend an hour perusing this table.

The other essential ingredient in the store’s success is Jack Cella and his staff, beginning with his wife Laura Prail, who has her own long career in the book business. Jack has been buying books for the Coop for decades, and his quiet, scholarly demeanor perfectly matches the store ambience.

He knows two big things extremely well: his customers and his inventory. As we go through our season’s offerings in the catalogs, I’m struck by how many authors he recognizes as Coop members; how often a book triggers an idea about which specific customers might be interested in a title; and, probably most key, how often Jack employs his vast institutional memory in making book decisions.

There have been lots of veteran book people who have retired or left the business over the last couple decades, and one thing we’ve collectively lost with them is the memory. I have a number of books on these new lists that ask buyers to remember an author’s track record. With younger booksellers, a strong title even just five years earlier can draw a blank. Not their fault, it’s just that the institutional memory isn’t there yet. Seminary Coop is the beneficiary of Jack Cella’s exhaustive one.

No sidelines, no coffee, no place to sit, no music, but you are able to hold, browse, caress, smell (sounds weird, but I do it, and I’ve seen others do it) and consider an actual physical book as opposed to looking at an image of it on a screen. Seminary is a destination bookstore, and I know people who will spend precious found time when stranded in Chicago by making the trip to Hyde Park. I know several Milwaukeeans who make regular Saturday day trips to the Coop.

You may have heard something about Seminary Coop’s sister store, 57th Street Books, when it was widely noted last year that a couple of its best customers and their book-loving daughters had moved to Washington DC. Only a block north of the Coop, 57th Street retains some of the charming aesthetic features of the main store- the basement, the low ceilings, the brick walls. (though it has a couple windows!)

This is a more general neighborhood store, with kids books, cookbooks and magazines and (yes) a couple intelligent sidelines (calendars). The store also hosts events, readings, and is usually a buzz of activity. Jeff Waxman, under whose guidance the semcoop website is becoming an original and interesting literary magazine, selects the books for the store with a keen eye for what sets them apart from the Coop.

As if this isn’t enough, the Coop operates a beautiful shop in the Newberry Library, with an extensive specialty in history, book arts, maps, Native American studies, Shakespeare, and Chicago books.

Sorry, do I sound a little starry-eyed about these stores? Guilty.

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