It seems like everyone who has ever lost themselves in the basement maze of Chicago's Seminary Coop bookstore has a story to tell, from an unexpected discovery to a staff recommendation that, literally, changed their mind. The Hyde Park institution, which observed its 40th anniversary last year, is a rarity in the book world, an independent, community bookstore with the sort of long arms that have brought it a passionate, international following.

"The Seminary Coop is hands-down the finest scholarly bookstore in the country," said Martin Riker, assistant director and senior editor at the Center for Book Culture, publisher of Dalkey Archive Press. "Their literature selection is amazing as well. Everyone there is incredibly smart, and the fact that they care about the cultural value of books is evident in just about everything they do, from the books they carry to their Web site ( and their great and unpretentious review magazine, Front Table."

Jordan Miller, publisher of Academy Chicago, seconds Riker's opinion. "I think almost everyone would agree that the Seminary Coop is one of the most important academic bookstores in the country," Miller told PW. "With the demise of Great Expectations in Evanston, its importance looms even larger. They've done a great job of keeping their finger on the pulse of academia. Long may they run."

The Seminary Coop made its reputation through a telescopic academic focus, fine-tuned over the years by the individual tastes and ideas of its customers and its knowledgeable staff. The store's far-flung clientele almost universally agree that the Seminary Coop, as reflected in its selection as well as the judgment of its diverse staff, is one of the most reliable barometers regarding prevailing academic ideas and opinion—from the thorniest intellectual and scientific debates to matters of literary taste.

Much of that credit, longtime fans agree, goes to Jack Cella, who has managed the Seminary Coop for more than 30 years.

Erin Hogan, the publicity manager at the University of Chicago Press, considers herself a "member of the Jack Cella fan club." Hogan earned her masters and doctorate in art history from the university. "To this day I regret not thanking Jack Cella and the Seminary Coop in the acknowledgements of my dissertation," Hogan said. "It would never have been completed without them. The Seminary Coop front table was as good an education as I ever received from any seminar or lecture."

Cella is famously modest and gives much of the credit for the store's reputation to his employees and customers.

"I've been fortunate to have great employees over the years," Cella said. "We've had a spectacular group of people working here, and we also have found a great and supportive audience both locally and nationally, which enables us to stock the books we do."

The Seminary Coop has branched out over the years, and now has two additional locations in Chicago: 57th Street Books and the A.C. McClurg bookstore at the Newberry Library. Together, the three stores have 55 employees and do more than $7 million in annual sales. Evidence of the store's broad reach is the fact that $1 million of those sales are through mail orders, either through the store's Web site or direct telephone contact with far-flung customers. The Coop now has more than 45,000 shareholders spread out all over the world. Shareholders receive discounts and, rarely, interest dividends on shares. It's definitely not a money-making proposition for shareholders, Cella admits, but the discounts make for a "pretty good return on the investment." The shareholder system, of course, makes for demanding, if appreciative, customers.

"It certainly keeps you on your toes," Cella told PW. "We try to be extremely responsive to the needs and interests of our customers. It's nice to have customers who don't hesitate to let you know that they appreciate what you're doing, but also what you can do better."

The Hyde Park store's basement location and its maze-like layout definitely contributes to its mystique. It's easy to get lost in the place for hours at a time. The store's displays and featured titles are a crash course in au courant intellectual taste. There surely aren't very many stores in the country where titles like Dalkey Archive's reissue of Ann Quin's novel Berg or Richard Posner's Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline rub shoulders on the bestseller list with J.R.R. Tolkien, Terry McMillan and the Simpsons. The Coop's Web site seeks to duplicate that browsing experience, with selections from the front table, as well as recommendations from professors, writers and publishers.

For Cella the rewards are still in the stimulation and gratification he gets from the daily give-and-take he has with his customers and employees. "I've met some truly amazing people through this store," he said. "Even after all these years, I still probably get more good book suggestions from customers than I give."

For customers—and fans—like Hogan, the Seminary Coop continues to provide that same regular stimulation and gratification.

"The Seminary Coop is still the first place I tell visitors or new students to visit when they're in Hyde Park for the first time," Hogan said. "I love that entryway, before you go down the stairs. You walk in there, and it's cool and dark and quiet like a cathedral, and you know you're in the presence of something awesome."