Monuments of Unageing Intellect

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Hours of the UniverseThe perfect bookstore is not perfect because it meets every expectation of what a bookstore should be, as if it conformed to some platonic notion of completeness. Nor is it perfect for exceeding any and all reasonable expectations thrust upon it. Rather, perfection derives from the expectations a bookstore places upon itself, expectations that supplant any preconceptions of what a bookstore ought to be. All that the book lover sees, in this case, is the store in front of him, and he’s so overwhelmed by what it has to offer that he can’t quite remember what it was he expected to begin with. 

I feel this way every time I visit the Seminary Co-Op Bookstore on the University of Chicago’s campus.[1] The Co-Op’s selection is wide, deep, and, most significantly, 100 percent garbage-free.  It’s in a basement, and color-coded paths taped to the stone floor map its sections. The enthralled browser is sure to bump his head on one of the many exposed pipes. It is what one might expect from a bookstore found inside the business end of a wardrobe: ultimately indescribable in any way other than magical.

I recently read Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, a novel whose plot and cast of characters call to mind a most complimentary adjective: Dickensian. With Dickens on my mind, and influenced by the wonder of the Seminary Co-Op, I picked up a copy of Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist, supposedly an account of Dickens’s early career that ignores the inherited wisdom of Dickens lore. As an aspiring novelist, I’ll  take any stitch of Dickens I can get my hands on; it is likely enough to teach by osmosis to be well worth the price.

I would like to say that I had been yearning for more Russian literature in my wanderings, but that would be the sort of lie worth telling only as a punch line. Instead, meandering through the stacks at Seminary Co-Op, I stumbled upon a copy of Turgenev’s Virgin Soil. I was fond of Fathers and Sons as an undergraduate and am still waiting to be convinced that Russian novelists don’t hold the key to the universe.

To round out my purchases, I picked up a copy of Stuart Dybek’s Childhood and Other Neighborhoods. I long ago loaned a copy of Childhood to a friend, and only slightly less long ago gave up on the hope of seeing it returned. Besides, one needs no excuse to walk out of a Chicago bookstore with a Dybek collection in hand.

Like so many other bookstores, the Seminary Co-Op lines its checkout counter with potential impulse buys.  The cynic would expect to find here the flavor of the week memoirist or a variety of recycled self-help information.  Not so at Seminary. The book that caught my eye and stimulated my impulse was Irish Writers on Writing edited by Eavan Boland. Walking out of the Seminary Co-Op, I was convinced once again of the bookstore’s perfection.  With an armful of only four books, I held strong to the conviction that only a perfect bookstore can leave you feeling simultaneously satisfied and invigorated, eager to consume monuments of unageing intellect.


[1] N.B. The Seminary Co-Op will be moving a block east of its current location in the very near future.  It is this author’s opinion that, if you are at all able, you should make a pilgrimage to the current location before that move happens.  However, it is also this writer’s opinion that cultural eulogies are as obnoxious as they are useless.  Consider this a love letter to the only version of the Co-Op any of us has ever known.  The writer of this love letter understands that, as is true of any love worth expressing, adoration of The Way Things Were without an eager eye on the way they will be is no love at all.