The Bookseller

An interview with Jack Cella

Illustration by Hanna Petroski
Illustration by Hanna Petroski

“Jack is the soul of the bookstore. Many others have contributed to the growth and success of the store, but Jack has made it what it is.” Now, after forty-three years as general manager of the Seminary Co-Op, Jack Cella has retired.

Few people can say they remember the Co-Op without him—not even Katy O’Brien-Weintraub, assistant manager of the store, who supplied the above quote to the Los Angeles Times in 2009, and who has known Jack since 1973. The store was founded in 1961, and Jack began working in 1969. He was named general manager the very next year. The Co-Op has grown, expanded storefronts, and moved over the years, but it has always remained an essential part of the inquisitive tone of the Hyde Park neighborhood. It’s as much a part of it as the Gothic architecture, the tree-lined avenues, and the small, stately brick homes.

I sat down with Jack a few days before he retired, in the break room of the new building, which opened last year. Copies of Jhumpa Lahiri’s new novel, “The Lowland,” lined the shelves. Another employee was finishing up his lunch.

Jack and I spoke about the store’s history and character, its changes and its concerns. Recently the Co-Op changed its membership program to cut the ten percent discount from the first $100 of purchases per year, citing “financial challenges affecting independent booksellers everywhere.” But again and again, he stressed how the store can continue to survive, even improve, if it only listens to those who stalk its shelves. He was in the midst of a recollection about the old building when he suddenly stopped, his eyes brightening, and asked: “But what do you think? Do you remember the old building?”

I knew the old Co-Op building for only a few years, but I still miss it terribly: the curt wooden steps, the cloistered hall, the happy wanderings. I still haven’t gotten used to the new design, but Jack is right. There’s a reason for optimism. This is still a bookstore you can walk into and know you’re in Hyde Park.

You first came to Hyde Park [in 1967] to study at the Divinity School. What was that like?
I found both the university and the Divinity School great places. There’s a wonderful faculty and wonderful students, and I have nothing but fond recollections. The border between being a student and then working at the bookstore simultaneously and then shifting to the bookstore more and then shifting to the bookstore entirely was porous. There was no real decision made.I think most people who work in bookstores, and spend a lot of time working at them, probably didn’t think they were going to do it as long as they have done it. It’s sort of a job where people often think, “Well I’d like to work in a bookstore for a while,” but I think very few people say—in fact I don’t know of anybody—who’s said, “I’d like to work in a bookstore and make it a career” [laughs]. 

What drew you to the Co-Op?
Well, I think the books certainly. I’ve always liked to read, and think, and discuss the way most people in this community do. I still remember the first time I came to the university, the first day or two, going down to Harper Library, which was before the Regenstein Library, and just looking at what seemed like miles of stacks. I was sort of overwhelmed, but also enthusiastic, enthusiastic about what this said about the place and life around here.

But when I first started at the Co-Op it was a lot smaller than it is right now. We were only open four hours a day, five days a week. It’s a consumer cooperative…so it grew very, very gradually.

 

How has that community changed?
I think it’s stayed pretty constant, although it’s grown as more people have come in. But I think the community involvement in the cooperative has been pretty strong, almost from the beginning. We’re never going to be able to run the kind of operation that’s as good as people would want, or expect. Because I think the expectations in this community are very great (appropriately so). But I think as long as we are thinking carefully about what customers want in a bookstore, as long as we keep our eye on that and listen to what people say, I think we’ll improve and our fit in the community will grow.

When I travel around and go to bookstores in other cities, what I really like to do is go into independents and see [what they’re like]—if it’s a good independent bookstore, you’ll know you’re in Town A versus Town B versus Town C. It’s distinct to the community that it’s in. And it tries, by inventory and selection and services, to fit well into its local community. I think we’re very lucky because we have an exceptional community that we try to fit into.

All of the employees here work on the sales floor; we don’t have any offices. That’s by design. That sort of shared responsibility for the cooperative and its growth and well being over time has really stood the place in pretty good stead.

 

On the subject of design, what do you miss most about the old building?
I don’t miss a whole lot. Well, I spent so much time there I was very comfortable with the place, that sense of being surrounded by books and turning corners. But within a few days of moving in here I honestly don’t think I missed much about the other place at all. It took some getting used to, because things were in different places.

In the other place the arrangement was in part determined by supporting columns and pipes we had to avoid, and bookcases were built around things. Here it’s essentially an empty room. We tried to come up with something that wouldn’t feel like one big room, but replicate the sense of discovery the other one had. That’s why the shelves are at angles and whatnot. There’s also practical reasons for that; in the other place we were in a basement and didn’t have to worry about loadbearing capacity of the floors, but here, the code is such that we can’t have too much weight in any one spot—[laughs]—or the floor will not sustain it! So that in part determined design, but also a sense of people being surrounded by books, and turning corners and finding things they didn’t expect to find.

We don’t have to worry about water, which was a constant problem. Although in the forty-some years I was there we were never flooded at all. There was a pump because we were below ground, but that was electric. So if there had ever been a heavy rainstorm and power out at the same time there would have been a problem, but there never was. The power went out a lot, and there were a lot of heavy rainstorms over the years, but they never coincided. I think we were very lucky in that way.

 

I was in a class recently taught by Hanna Grey [president of the UofC from 1978 to 1993], in which she praised the Co-Op for that very same thing—for being a place you could wander around in and happen upon a book you might never otherwise find. This has been integral to the Co-Op, and its members, for a long time. Can a bookstore still work like this when the market price for books is so high?
I don’t really know if [the cost of a book] has gone up more than the cost of inflation. I remember when I first started here you could find hardcover books for $4.50 or $3.50 or something like that, or a lot of paperbacks for 45 cents or 75 cents, and that is dramatic. That’s quite a big change now.

I think books are, for what you pay for them, a pretty good value. You can go back to them, you can resell them, you can give them away. I like to go in coffee shops quite a bit, but who would have predicted ten years ago that the $3.50 cup of coffee—or whatever Starbucks charges—would be so successful…Books are still relatively inexpensive for what you get. And I think good value, for the money.

 

One thing I sense, and that I’d like your perspective on, is that there seems to be an almost charitable attitude towards independent bookstores now—that they’re going away, and that there’s more of an obligation to go to them to show support.
Well, that’s an interesting way to put it. I think there’s certainly much more focus now—I don’t know how far this will go—on the virtue of shopping locally, and not just for books. Because of the life that retailers, of different sorts, bring to the communities they’re a part of. They do make neighborhoods more lively, and interesting to walk through and live in. So I think there is more of an awareness about supporting small businesses, of whatever sort, as long as they’re providing the services that people want. And that I think is really key. Those of us who work in brick-and-mortar bookstores are constantly thinking of ways to give people good reasons—and I mean genuinely good reasons—to shop locally. It’s not, I think, this sort of moral feeling that maybe you should support your local retailers. There have to be good reasons for doing that.

 

You’ve asked for a lot of feedback from customers in the last few years on how to go forward as a bookstore. And this summer you announced a new membership program [changing the structure of the member’s discount]. What was the decision process for that?
That was actually a board committee that dealt with that. They’ve been thinking for quite some time about how the Co-Op is to survive, and be financially healthy, in an era when bookstores are disappearing. There used to be many more bookstores than there are now, that’s for sure. We want to survive, but we only want to survive as a good bookstore; a bookstore people would be happy to go into.

This is an attempt to see if this would help, this new discount program. It’s not written in stone, and I think the board is anxious to hear reactions, like those of us who work here…The goal is to make sure that we can continue to do what people like, at a time that is very, very difficult for bookstores.

 

The university is certainly a large part of this customer base, but do you know how many other customers you have from the South Side, or the rest of Chicago, or beyond?
That’s a very good question, and we do have customers from all over. We try to focus on the immediate environment: the university, Hyde Park and Kenwood, and the South Side of Chicago. That is what we strive constantly to please…We focus on our local community, and try and fit in as snugly as we can, and if we do that well, then I think we become attractive to people outside the local community as well. And we absolutely need that to survive, and to be able to produce the store that serves our community.

 

You spoke of feeling overwhelmed by the number of books in the old Harper Library. It reminds me of a scene in Virginia Woolf’s novel Jacob’s Room, where, amidst the countless collection of books at the British Museum, one leaf of poetry is pressed flat against another, “hoarded beyond the power of any single mind to possess it.” One can never hope to read it all. What’s it like to have sold it all?
Oh—I mean it’s stimulating. You’re constantly overwhelmed by the amount of things you should read or should know. But you know you just have to make some decisions.

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