The Seminary Co-op, founded by five students in 1961 in the Chicago Theological Seminary’s basement as a member-owned cooperative, has become a cultural institution with an impact extending far beyond the Windy City. Celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, the Seminary Co-op now comprises two bookstores. The flagship location is the more erudite yet quirky of the two, specializing in scholarly tomes and small and university press titles. 57th Street Books, which opened in 1983 and is two blocks away, provides a more general selection of books for adults and children.
Membership in the Seminary Co-op is free, and members receive 10% discounts on purchases. The approximately 100,000 members represent a broad cross-section of readers and writers from both near and far, ranging from undergrads at the nearby University of Chicago to such luminaries as Barack and Michelle Obama, who still own a home less than a mile from the stores. Michelle launched the promotion for her 2019 memoir, Becoming, at the Seminary Co-op. That book signing for 500 customers was the only event on the tour that took place inside a bookstore rather than at a large venue.
The Seminary Co-op prides itself on its 100,000-title inventory of books, many of which rarely get shelf space elsewhere, including older titles, and soon-to-be classics. That’s why University Press Sales Associates rep Lanora Jennings describes browsing in the flagship store, with its labyrinthine aisles and creaky hardwood floors, as a “singular, almost sacrosanct, experience. It is about serendipity and surprise. You are compelled to wander. Each twist and turn reveals a book that instantly intrigues you. You rediscover books you’d forgotten. You come across books you didn’t know existed, but you absolutely can’t live without.”
Emphasizing the stores’ more metaphysical treasures, and its recent shift to not-for-profit status, Princeton University Press director Christie Henry notes, “There is a courage that lines the shelves of this store, and the hearts and minds of its staff, like no other I have encountered in 30 years of nonprofit publishing. As it has navigated a rebirth of sorts, it has also become a catalyst of inclusivity on Chicago’s South Side. [Director] Jeff Deutsch is a steadfast, compassionate, and creative leader, and has inspired his team, as well as many of us fortunate to be in his universe of the book.”
Henry isn’t the only observer who credits Deutsch with revitalizing the Seminary Co-op since he became director in 2014. Under his guidance, the stores ramped up their programming and partnered with local cultural institutions, such as the American Writers Museum and the University of Chicago, to present speakers and panels. The 57th Street store’s children’s section was enlarged to 30% of its total inventory, with an eye toward diversity to better serve the area’s youngest residents. As a result, 57th Street won the prestigious Women’s National Book Association’s 2019 Pannell Award for children’s bookselling in the general bookstore category.
In 2017, Seminary Co-op overhauled its membership program so that members would need to purchase stock in the business in order to vote. Two years later, it further tweaked its business model, becoming one of the few not-for-profit bookstores in the country. “We shifted from a retailing model to a not-for-profit model more in line with cultural and art institutions,” Deutsch explains. “We use multiple streams of revenue to achieve our mission of creating a world-class browsing experience.”
The Seminary Co-op’s commitment to operating without regard to fluctuations in the marketplace has been tested during the pandemic, but it has survived by serving its community’s needs while protecting its staff. Though 2020 revenues plummeted by 50% from the previous year, none of the stores’ 40–45 employees, a mix of full-time and part-time, have been laid off. This is in part due to the generosity of those who donated $250,000 to a GoFundMe campaign launched in March 2020.
Both stores have been closed to customer traffic since the beginning of the pandemic; 172 scheduled events were also canceled. Since then, the browsing experience has been replicated to some degree with digital catalogs, and there have been more than 150 virtual events. For the time being, Deutsch explains, the two stores have morphed into an “online order fulfillment warehouse,” and not a single employee is known to have contracted Covid-19.
During the pandemic, online sales at Seminary Co-op jumped 524%, but it was not enough to offset the loss of in-store sales. The increase was propelled, no doubt, by the stores’ providing options beyond curbside pickup and mail order: they hand-deliver books to homes in five South Side zip codes.
“Where you would previously look for Wittgenstein or Weil,” Deutsch notes, “you’ll find our shipping team and a cart full of neatly packed orders” bound for either the post office or customer doorsteps.