A Pretty Little Dungeon

The world’s best bookstore is not closing, but it might as well be. The Seminary Co-Op, the famed and infamous academic bookstore of the University of Chicago, is moving across the street. Worse, it is moving above ground. What was once a dank, dark, confusing, claustrophobic place that smelled of moldy paper and ancient farts, will soon be bright, airy, clean, and well-ordered. This is a tragedy.

The Sem Co-Op is where U of C students have bought their books for decades. It is a labyrinthine series of what I can only guess are former utility tunnels buried beneath the Chicago Theological Seminary’s gothic enormity. The ceiling is low and pipe-spangled. The stacks are narrow and confused, twisting around and leading to sudden dead-ends, or other, darker tunnels. Some shelves are hidden around blind corners or behind one of the mysterious, old turbines (see photo above) that lay rusting in odd coves.

People often say they get lost in bookstores, but the Sem Co-Op is the only bookstore where I have gotten legitimately lost and not known where I was or how to get out. In most good bookstores, the pleasure is in randomly stumbling across a rare signed first edition or something. In the Sem Co-Op you stumble across those, plus the weird old rusted machinery, random furniture, and the cobwebbed skeletons of ’70s grad school students who wandered in looking for the Chinese translation of Phenomenology of the Spirit and never found their way back out.

The selection, though, makes the danger and frustration worth it. It feels as if you can find any book down there. That, like in Borges’s Library of Babel, if a book can possibly exist, then it must exist somewhere in the dark recesses of the Sem Co-Op. And it’s yours, if you dare to find it.

So, the news that the Sem Co-Op would be moving above ground came as a blow to all of us who have happily plumbed its depths.

The NLB went back to Hyde Park this Saturday on a sort of dark nostalgia tour, revisiting the places where, eight years ago, so many legs, hearts, dreams, and brains were broken. And knowing that the Sem Co-Op’s subterranean days were numbered, we paid a final visit.

The bookstore isn’t closing, but there is a sense of mourning with its move. A documentary is being filmed about the place. A photographer was on hand to take pictures of people perusing the shelves. And a large poster invited the public to record their thoughts on what “the Seminary Co-Op is” on flyers that were displayed in the cloisters. There were dozens already out when we stopped by. The best one, written in pink marker, summed up the place perfectly: “The Sem Co-Op is a pretty little dungeon.”

The Sem Co-Op is coming up into the light. It will still be a great bookstore. But I think I will always fondly remember it as the endless, terrifying catacomb it once wondrously was.

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