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Feature Tue Sep 20 2011
This October, the Seminary Co-op will celebrate its 50th birthday, and within a year it will say goodbye to its cherished home in the basement of the Chicago Theology Seminary -- a winding and seemingly endless labyrinth of books. This is the second of a three-part series on the bookstore; read parts one and three.
Part Two: The Changing Industry
Assistant manager Heather Ahrenholz knows how she would like to bid farewell to the basement the Co-op has called home: a lecture series on the state of the book, and on how the publishing industry has changed over the last half-century.
"Bookselling is changing," knows general manager Jack Cella. "It's not the same as it was 10 years ago - it's not the same as it was two years ago. [The move] will give the Cooperative an occasion to think about what customers will want a bookstore to be next year, [and] 10 years from now - on the assumption that books will survive."
Having weathered 50 years of game-changing transformation - including e-books, Amazon, and the rise and fall of Borders -- this independent bookstore would be an appropriate venue, and its golden anniversary, a worthy occasion.
An employee for almost 20 years, Ahrenholz's history with the Co-op began as a part-time job while a sophomore at the University of Chicago. "The jobs that I had in high school were also places that I really liked as businesses -- I worked at a bakery, at an organic vegetable farm, and this was sort of along the same lines: a place I liked spending time in."
Her progression from casual to life-long employee was gradual, as was Cella's. After graduating with a degree in English, Ahrenholz still thought "five years from now, I probably won't still be here."
But after moving back to Hyde Park after a stint in Andersonville seven or eight years ago, she knew she was committing herself -- not just to her bookstore, but to the South Side community. "There's something really nice about walking down the street and seeing my customers - living in the same community I'm working in."
Ahrenholz knows that part of the Co-op's survival is due to its resolute focus on the needs of the local community. "This store clearly embodies part of why [students] were coming to the University of Chicago," and many of these students grew up without a local bookstore. With big-box chains such as Borders and Barnes & Noble, and the one-click ease of purchasing books on Amazon, students simply did not know what a bookstore could be.
A side-effect of the internet is a kind of "self-imposed isolation -- you can just get everything delivered to your door." Today, an entire generation of young people has grown up shopping online, which enculturates them with an entirely different understanding of what a "community" is.
Despite the blows dealt by national chains to independents, Borders' recent bankruptcy is, for Cella, a sad story. Now, "so many places in this country will be without a bookstore...there really aren't many types of retail where people come and browse and linger. You don't go to Treasure Island to browse through the milk."
Contrary to this Internet model, the Co-op, despite its book-filled corners and winding paths at close quarters, is a gathering space -- for conversation, the sharing of ideas, and discovering new subjects. For Cella, "with this bookstore, a lot of people who come in don't really have anything they're looking for and don't really know how long they want to stay - you get lots of chance meetings that way."
"It's hugely important to have a place like this," adds Ahrenholz. "I can't imagine a place without bookstores, specifically, but this one especially."
As local, independent bookstores have been ousted by larger, national chains, so, too, have smaller publishers been "gobbled up by multi-national conglomerates, which have become much more about the bottom line than about publishing great literature."
Because there are far fewer publishers today, there is far less an opportunity for good authors whose books can't guarantee high sales. Consequently, we've all but seen the demise of the very "idea of the mid-list novel," and reciprocally, a disturbing increase in "pressure to sell units and to come up with the next Harry Potter."
Of course, those who run the Co-op know that the same technology that has impacted the book industry for the worse also provides opportunities that increase, rather than decrease, the accessibility of print volumes. Ahrenholz, in part, thinks that "a lot of what [e-books] are doing is really cool." For instance, scholars who are unable to swing a trip to the British Library can still access many of the collections online in digital format -- including rare books complete with original annotations.
Cella has seen how technology has changed the role of information, and how brick and mortar bookstores have been impacted by it. "Fifteen years ago, there really wasn't a way to find out what was being published in [many] academic disciplines. There was no internet, [so] you had to look at the ads in the New York Review, get mailings, maybe." Then, stores that stocked a wide range of academic titles (or otherwise) were vital for getting invaluable information out to potential readers.
The situation has since changed. "Information is the cheapest thing there is right now. It's everywhere." Today, the service bookstores can provide is the converse: selectivity. Stores, such as the Co-op, which focus on the specific needs of their community now act as filters, cutting through the noise to the most important, interesting, and useful material for their readers.
"How do you choose what will be interesting to you [with the internet]?" asks Cella. The short answer is, it's damn near impossible. Over 50 years, the Co-op has seen the pendulum swing: "From information being a very valuable, big commodity, to being of no value at all."
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.