Thursday, August 17, 2017

Bookstore road trip: A visit to Seminary Coop and Robie House

This summer my niece Jocelyn was in Chicago for some field training. What a great opportunity to meet up! If I were able to convince her to do a bookstore visit, so much the better.

Being that her program was at the Illinois Institute of Technology, she thought it might be fun to go to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, especially as we’ve already done some Frank Lloyd Wright tourism together, coordinating a trip to the Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio in Oak Park, and another to Fallingwater outside Pittsburgh.

Since we were already close, we decided to head to Seminary Coop first, and then figure out how to get to Robie House afterwards. I had been to the Coop in their old location underground, but this was my first visit to the now-not-so-new store. We wound up having a little tea and a snack in the café, where we almost immediately ran into Jeff, the director. And then we started looking for Robie House, only to realize it was right next door. We were actually staring at it.

There are lots of great bookstores in Chicago that are worth a side visit, but Seminary is a bookstore where I could see many a book lover planning a trip to Chicago and a side-trip to Chicago to see everything else. They continue to have great depth in their academic sections. If you like history, philosophy, theology—any number of disciplines—you will likely find a number of gems in your field of interest that you didn’t previously know about. While we spent a lot of time browsing, I spent extra time looking at urban planning (or maybe it was studies), mathematics, and foodways (which I think is the academic way of saying cooking literature). We spotted this copy of The Eater’s Guide to Chinese Characters, a University of Chicago Press book from 2004, which we had to highlight, being that Jocelyn and her family have a lot of connections to China.

One thing I loved about their fiction was their attention to series. Their Library of America case was quite imposing; it was something we had at Harry W. Schwartz back in the 1980s, but I think I understand more the importance of the series. In these days of disposability, the Library of American hardcovers are printed with high quality paper that will last when other books’ pages yellow and crumble.

Similarly, I have admired the P.G. Wodehouse hardcover titles from Overlook, and while I passed on them when I was a buyer, I am thinking about them differently, and wonder if they might just work as a collectible. I was just as surprised to see a very nice assortment of David Lodge’s novels, these being in paperback. I wondered how well they were selling to a book friend and he considered Lodge is the probably the favorite writer of academics of a certain age. Nobody really captured the quirks of the profession better.

The store was doing major section moves over the summer. There were very nice notes explaining where the sections were moving, and sometimes why.

We enjoyed browsing the tables of their bargain books and finally settled on two for Jocelyn – Eugenia Cheng’s How to Bake Pi and Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman. And then it was off the fifty feet or so to Robie House. The tour is great, filled with lots of history. Unlike some tours of this sort, the work is in progress with the room sometimes a bit bare. Philosophical guessed there is some hesitancy of using reproductions, but more practically, the space might still be used for university functions and needs to be regularly cleared out. Tickets are $18, with discounts for students. Can you imagine there was a time when you could rent a Robie House apartment?

Back at Boswell the next week, I was chatting a customer (Steve) who had just special ordered a Loeb Modern Classic. I asked if this was his first, and said no, he’d completely fallen in love with the series after studying Greek. I asked if he’d been to Seminary Coop. He said no. I showed him a photo of the store, specifically the case of Loeb titles. He said, “I’m going tomorrow.” And you know what? I haven’t seen him since; I think he moved in under the floorboards.

1 comment:

Mr. Myers said...

Dan - Do you prefer the new or the old Coop location?