54,000 members support Seminary Co-op Bookstore, located on the Southside of Chicago, IL, USA. Toether they are surviving a revolution.
Though people in the US still read a great deal, a majority of book sales now comes through online vendors and e-readers. Across the country bookstores fail at a shocking rate. The last few years has even witnessed the implosion of large, corporate chains, not just small, independent stores. The members and customers of Seminary Books, however, still prefer to pay a little more for the pleasure of an actual place, for the thrilling journey through the twisting rows of thoughtfully curated book shelves, surrounded by the smell of paper and ink and the whisper of pages brushing against pages, for intentional and accidental discovery of new titles, new writers, new ideas.
Both an elite university and low-income housing projects sit walking distance from the Seminary Bookstore. Individuals from an incredibly diverse economic and ethnic background are co-owners in the cooperative, securing, not only its survival but also its identity.
The coop started out as an academic bookstore—indeed it is currently considered the best in the world. In 1961, fourteen students and faculty from University of Chicago wanted a better bookstore and decided to make their own. As membership expanded, so did demand for non-academic titles. In response, a second store, one that stocks things like cook books, novels and travel guides, opened a few years ago. It has been successful since day one.
From huge shifts, like opening a new store, to smaller issues, like deciding how to label and organize book sections, the cooperative works to listen to members and provide unique intellectual odysseys. Besides actual books, the cooperative hosts 130 author events a year and donates books to literacy programs.
While the brick and mortar stores stand strong, the transition to an online world has affected the cooperative. Though many members and customers live within a few blocks of the stores, the list of co-owners has gone global. Individuals from 109 countries send dues and order books through the store. Seminary’s largest institutional costumer is the University of Peking.
It is also notable that if members move out of the Hyde Park neighborhood, they tend to retain membership and connection. A few years ago, one such family moved to the White House in Washington DC. Seminary books happily reports that Barack and Michele Obama are still satisfied members, dedicated, like so many others, to sustaining physical bookstores stocked with titles that most do not bring to the shelves.