“When It’s Time to Change, then It’s Time to Ch-Aange …”
James Santel, a University of Chicago alum, goes back to the campus and visits the Seminary Co-Op Bookstore, which is my favorite bookstore on all of the planet. Like Santel, I had to deal with a sense of nostalgic loss when the bookstore moved, but also like Santel, I have learned to live with the change:
… For years, the Co-op had colonized the basement of the Chicago Theological Seminary. Its shelves wound among pipes and boilers; its ceiling was low enough to require a permanent half crouch by anyone taller than five feet. Thirty dollars bought three shares in the Co-op, shares that entitled you to a small discount but which had supposedly never paid a dividend at fiscal year’s end. At the beginning of each term, I would descend into the warren of shelves, head towards the rear, and find my class listings, taking a copy of The Wealth of Nations or The Division of Labor in Society from a huge stack of identical editions as if it were a slice of wedding cake. The Co-op was my refuge in depressed days and hours, the days and hours—of which there were plenty—that my nostalgia erases when reconstructing my Chicago years.
But the Co-op has moved, eight feet up and one block east to the first floor of a building next to Frank Lloyd Wright’s splendid Robie House, displaced by the university’s forthcoming Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics. I wouldn’t have a chance to linger among my ambered memories underground, but would instead have to confront the new reality of a clean, well-lighted Co-op. “It’s pretty confusing,” my old friend Nausicaa had warned me. She was referring to the store’s layout, which is indeed a bit perplexing, relying on pods of shelves that require a browser to constantly reorient his location in the alphabet of authors’ last names. But in all the ways that counted, the store made perfect sense to me.
The Co-op still offered an incredible bounty in a time of literary scarcity: no less than eight different versions of War and Peace (Penguin Classics, Penguin Classics Deluxe, Oxford, Norton…); obscure titles from deep within authors’ oeuvres; robust shelves of literary theory and continental philosophy. But aside from its rich selection, the Co-op bore little relation to the store I had known: a sense of well-spaced order had replaced the atmosphere of overstuffed clutter; beautiful big windows let in plenty of sunlight; plush new carpeting had replaced bare concrete; tables and chairs had usurped footstools as the primary seating option.
In all that unfamiliarity, I found freedom, a gleeful severing of a link to a past that I had been massaging and worrying until it bore little in the way of truth. The old Seminary Co-op had been an enchanted place, it’s true, a holdover from an older world, but its time had come. So long as the books remain, who cares? Let the university turn the old space into a laboratory of infernal economics, let the Seminary Co-op Documentary Project preserve the space in memory, but let the past be past. Wandering among the shelves, a slow transformation took place, my memories ceasing to appear like portals to a magical past and starting to look like themselves—like pictures of a time that, like most times in life, was complicated in its mixture of emotions. I browsed for a while, bought a copy of Miami and the Siege of Chicago, and left in high spirits, glad to see the Co-op doing so well, and glad to no longer think of it as mine.
I will confess to missing the old location. I enjoyed getting my textbooks from there, and I enjoyed even more getting books for leisure reading from there. But as long as Jack Cella and the gang are still on the job, and as long as I can still have access to excellent reading, I guess I shouldn’t complain.
At least, I guess I shouldn’t complain too much.