Seminary Co-op’s Cella retires

By JEFFREY BISHKU-AYKUL
Assistant to the Editor

Master curator and bibliophile Jack Cella, general manager of the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, will retire from his self-described “dream job” at the top academic bookstore Sunday, more than 40 years after he began work there as a part-time employee.

“It’s been a spectacular life. I’ve gotten to know so many amazing people over the years,” Cella told the Herald in a Friday interview at the bookstore, located at 5751 S. Woodlawn Ave. Notable visitors to the store — now said to contain more than 150,000 titles — have included literary critic Susan Sonntag, economist Gary Becker and, of course, President Barack Obama.

Cella added that “it’s probably good for any institution to think about continuity and transition.” Citing the 50th anniversary and recent move of the once-subterranean bookstore one block east, and the upcoming 30th anniversary of 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th St., he called it “a good time to retire.”

“I think there’s a time when you should think about the future and other people,” Cella said, adding that it “wasn’t an easy decision.”

Cella will leave with a wealth of anecdotes, such as when he paid his respects to the late, Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar.

“He was a friend and he was a customer, but he was also one of the great thinkers of the 20th century,” Cella said. After Chandrasekhar died his wife came into the Co-op and said that he had wanted his ashes left at several campus sites, including his bookstore.

“I went out with her and scattered some of his ashes. And when we moved over here, I dug up some earth and brought it over here.”

“He’s got this really deep love and affection for both the University of Chicago and the Hyde Park community,” said Bill Gerstein, chair of the bookstore’s board and one of the authors of its Tuesday e-mail to members announcing Cella’s retirement. His message was met with appreciation and thanks.

“Congratulations and best wishes. I already have in mind a book I wish to buy there,” said one customer, from downstate Illinois.

“It is hard to imagine the Seminary Coop Bookstore without Jack,” wrote another patron, a Chicagoland professor. “He always made time to answer people’s questions and cared so much that customers’ concerns were addressed.”

Megan Doherty, who received in 2010 a Ph.D. from the U. of C’s Divinity School — which Cella once attended as a graduate student himself — bought textbooks at the Seminary Co-op’s previous location, 5757 S. University Ave. The photographer documented the space with fellow alum Jasmine Kwong, in an exhibit that was shown in Regenstein Library’s special collections gallery and is currently on display at the Hyde Park Historical Society, 5529 S. Lake Park Ave.

“Most everyone that I interviewed for the project, not only identified the Co-op as being the physical embodiment of the life of the mind and the ideals that the University of Chicago strives to create and encourage, but they also strongly identify it with Jack himself,” Doherty said, adding that, “for many, Jack kind of is the Co-op.”

In retirement, Cella plans to start a blog on university press publications and to publish a book of reflections on his time at the store, of which he says he has written a few chapters already.

“I know well what doesn’t make a good book,” Cella said, “because I’ve certainly seen my share of them over the years.”

Cella’s successor will be chosen by Nancy Maull, vice president of headhunter Isaacson, Miller, a onetime graduate student at the U. of C. who the outgoing manager said he has known for many years.

“She has a really good sense of the cooperative and both of its stores, and their role in this community we live in,” Cella said.

An interim manager will be announced this week and, according to Gerstein, a successor is expected to be chosen by early 2014.

j.bishku@hpherald.com