For Stanley Tigerman, whose firm Tigerman McCurry Architects is behind the new design, the mission is personal. He has been a member of the co-op for more than 30 years and acknowledges the move is "traumatic."
"You don't always have a project where you're in love with the place," Tigerman said.
Tigerman is an iconoclastic Chicago architect whose major projects include the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie and, more playfully, the downtown Anti-Cruelty Society building, which has a façade modeled after a dog's face. He said the great challenge was to retain the bookstore's romance even as the light of day pours through a wall of windows.
The maple wood book stacks in the new store are arranged in nooks, rather than straight lines, and many have square cut-outs so that you can peek to the other side. The ceilings were removed to expose the ductwork and pipes to retain some of the old shop's industrial look.
"[The co-op is] very dense, and it will continue to be very dense," Tigerman said. "It will continue to have places to secrete yourself."
The co-op's move from the basement of 5757 S. University Ave. to 5751 S. Woodlawn Ave. has been in the works since 2008, when the University of Chicago bought both buildings from the Chicago Theological Seminary. Since the seminary moved to a newly constructed building nearby, the university plans to renovate the University Avenue building to house its Economics Department.
The school is financing the new home for the co-op, which was founded in 1961 by 17 seminary and Divinity School students who each put in about $10. It now has 53,000 members. "For a place so devoted to books, an independent bookseller of that quality and stature is something we very much want to support," said university spokesman Steve Kloehn.
The building on Woodlawn Avenue where the co-op is moving, called McGiffert House, was originally built as a dorm for the seminary but for many years has been devoted to offices, which will continue to operate out of the upper floors. Unlike the 1920s gothic beauty on University Avenue, McGiffert House, built in 1959, is nothing to look at.
"It's a very dumb building with no aesthetically redeemable features," Tigerman said. That presented another challenge to make the bookstore attractive.
The bookstore will occupy the first floor and a portion of the basement, which will house textbooks. Whereas the co-op's books had been squeezed into 1.5 miles of shelving in a 4,300-square-foot space, its new home will have 12,000 square feet and an additional 600 feet of shelving.
The new bookstore will have room for author events, holding 30 to 40 people, and lounge seating for people to read by the windows. Across the lobby, an independent coffee shop called Plein Air plans to open next year with outside seating.
Whether the larger space and improved visibility helps or hurts the iconic bookstore's appeal remains to be seen.
Jack Spicer, a member of the co-op's board for the last four years, said it's significant that the basement shop felt like a "monastery" for books, where the lack of coffee or Moleskine journals or any other distractions signaled its singular commitment to the printed word.
But he's optimistic that as long as the shop continues to tout the message that books are first, customers will follow.
And the new Seminary Co-op will give nods to its storied history. Though the mechanical bellows won't come with, the plaque from its manufacturer will. Photos of its final days, thanks to the Seminary Co-op Documentary Project, will be on display. "When something changes dramatically, it's really important not to develop a case of amnesia," said Spicer, a financial supporter of the documentary project. "We can't forget what we had there."