HYDE PARK — After more than 40 years of 80-hour weeks, the manager of the Seminary Cooperative Bookstore is ready to retire.
Jack Cella started at the bookstore in 1969 when it was just a single room in the basement of the former Chicago Theological Seminary. He saw the store grow into an underground labyrinth of books and then last year on its 50th anniversary graduate to an above-ground location at 5751 S. Woodlawn Ave.
“He’s made the store what it is,” said Heather Ahrenholz, the assistant manager. “He’s developed the store, he’s turned it into what we think of as the Co-op.”
Staffed by many Hyde Parkers working among tables and shelves crafted by neighborhood carpenters, the Seminary Cooperative is a creature of the neighborhood.
“We always felt we were in a very special community that wants bookstores,” Cella said Wednesday. “We could never be as good a bookstore as people want us to be, so there’s always some way to improve.”
Cella credits the bookstore’s connection to the neighborhood as a core reason for its continued existence during difficult times for booksellers, and he has seen repeated crises.
He said he’s seen the rise and fall of local chain bookstores, followed by the cycle of national chains and now the influx of online booksellers, which he thinks is the most serious development yet.
“Right now is certainly the biggest change since Guttenberg,” Cella said. “I think this will survive and booksellers will survive.”
Cella, very much a Hyde Parker, thinks the continued success will depend on the continued connection to the community.
Though Cella will leave his home of more than 40 years for Duluth, Minn., on Oct. 12, he will continue to concentrate on Hyde Park.
Cella said he plans to begin his retirement with work on a book about the changes Hyde Park has undergone through the vignettes of visits to the local bookstore.
“I love this neighborhood,” Cella said. “Hyde Park right now I think is going through a lot of positive changes.”
He said he also has planned to start a blog on his personal expertise, university presses. As textbook sales move online, Cella said about half of the shelves are now stocked with titles from the University of Chicago Press and other university presses.
Still, he is a little leery of how he will cope with the winters in Minnesota, where his wife, Laura, grew up.
“I’m wondering how I’m going to be with shoveling snow,” Cella said. “My hobbies are mostly reading and eating.”
Laura Cella, the manager of the store’s 57th Street location beat her husband to the punch and retired on Saturday.
The Cooperative’s board is now conducting a search for a replacement for the Cellas.