Underground in the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, seated between the Film Analysis and African-American Studies shelves, I was told how nothing would be the same. The store, an unintentional masterpiece of narrow hallways and hidden rooms, is moving in October to a new aboveground location. But before that happens, Jasmine Kwong and Megan E. Doherty will be documenting exactly what won’t be the same. For this pair of professional photographers, it’s about trying to record an experience, something as elusive as what Kwong calls “that feeling of going through a space and hearing footsteps.”
The two have been collecting anecdotes, photographs and artifacts from across the bookstore’s history. There are currently a few dozen images on the project’s website (semcoop-project.org), but the pair plan to host many more, including older ones acquired from employees and the university’s student newspaper. They envision piecing these images together with their interviews to create an interactive timeline. The university’s Special Collections, meanwhile, will acquire the artifacts, eventually putting together an exhibit.
After the move, the books will still be there—in fact, the new space will allow for an even larger collection. But that familiar plunge from high ceilings and stone into the cramped basement below will be lost.
“The first experience is remarkably and wonderfully similar across all people,” Doherty says. “You try and figure out where to get in and then you finally find the entrance and you wander down the stairs and realize, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a beautiful little labyrinth and cave of nothing but books.’ ”
The bookstore is in the basement of a neo-gothic building completed in 1927. The ornate tower and stone cloister, symbols of the Chicago Theological Seminary housed above, conceal a lower level dense with an ecosystem of pipes. The organ bellows, an obstacle for employees and patrons, have been out of operation for years.
Clearly, the 1920s architects were not planning for a bookstore, but their utility-minded design has created something artful. Shelves line the thin passageways. Jutting valves hold books in place, and the tight space means not a single shelf has room for another title. When the store moves after 51 years below ground, it will have a new home designed by Tigerman McCurry Architects.
The draw of this basement is strong. Interviewing old customers, Doherty learned how one patron used to dive into her couch for spare change so she could pass the tolls between Chicago and South Bend with as much book money as possible. Nobel laureate Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar had some of his ashes spread in front of the store’s entrance.
Doherty and Kwong discovered a box of postcards sent to the co-op from all over the globe. Such small things show how much the store matters. In a campaign where patrons complete the sentence, “The Seminary Co-op is,” former Obama economic advisor Austan Goolsbee wrote, “The last magical place in the world.”
This last magical place will soon be home to economists. The University of Chicago is turning the building into the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics. Nonetheless, the university is financing the bookstore’s move one block east, as well as constructing an entirely new facility for the CTS. There’s still much to see, though. The pair is excited to record the move, something that will achieve what seems almost impossible—the emptying of all those shelves. Looking on the bright side, Doherty envisions the move as a chance to answer the question, “How do you move a spirit and get it to grow new roots?”