Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Literature, UCP News

End of an era: Farewell to Jack Cella

Photograph by: Megan E. Doherty

After this Sunday, October 13, Hyde Park will never be the same. Jack Cella, the general manager of the Seminary Co-op Bookstore for the past 43 years, will retire after helping the store transform from a locally centered cooperative to the nation’s premier scholarly bookstore, with more 50,000 members and three locations. It would be nearly impossible to exaggerate the depth and breadth of Cella’s contribution to the culture of scholarly publishing and to this remarkable institution, and in turn, his value to the Hyde Park community, and especially to the University of Chicago Press.

From our promotions director Levi Stahl:

Being a regular at a bookstore is one of life’s great pleasures. And what you want above all—your reward for being a regular—is good company: you go to the store to talk with the people there, to find out what they’ve been doing and seeing (and of course reading), to hear what they’ve spotted that they think you might like, to catch up on the flood of new books you’d otherwise miss.

What you want is to talk to Jack Cella. It’s almost impossible to leave a conversation with Jack—quiet, understated, serious, friendly Jack—without a new book if not in hand then at least in mind. His awareness is astonishing: he doesn’t just separate the wheat from the chaff, he goes on to parcel it out perfectly to the people he knows will appreciate it most. Retirement suits readers, and no one would begrudge Jack his, but he’ll be greatly missed. Just as there’s no store quite like the Seminary Co-op, there’s no bookseller quite like Jack.

Similarly, it’s no understatement to quote UCP author Bruce Lincoln, who said of Cella, “He’s built the best bookstore in the U.S. and maybe beyond. He’s a treasure, and his institution is a treasure. I hope it will thrive without him, though it’s hard to imagine it without him.”

Cella certainly has impacted numerous lives through his endeavor, and Rodney Powell, editor of our film and cinema studies list, is one of them. As manager at 57th St. Books for nearly a decade, Powell wrote a send-off worthy of the man whose “vast storehouse of knowledge have come to symbolize the culture of the Co-op and what members value most about it.” It follows after the jump.


Yes, there they were, in the e-mail of October 1 from the Board of the Seminary Co-op: words that I had not expected to see in my lifetime: “Now that the Co-op is settled into its wonderful new space, Jack will be leaving on October 13.”

Jack leaving? When I had expected him to outlive me and pass away at his desk while checking out the information for a special order? Say it isn’t so!

Well, hardcore fans of the Seminary Co-op will have to accept the fact, and even though we know the Co-op will continue in all its eminence in its “wonderful new space,” we know it won’t be the same without Jack.

And of course it could not be— institutions change as personnel change. But it’s hard not to wax sentimental about Jack. Although he would be the first to downplay his own contribution, we also know—not to take away anything from the many others who have contributed to the Co-op’s success—that Jack has been its principal architect. Certainly that success could only be achieved in a community that loves books and shows its love by supporting such a bookstore. But without Jack’s unwavering commitment to making the Co-op one of the world’s best, it wouldn’t have happened.

However, to avoid the sentimental, I want to emphasize something other than Jack’s almost legendary modesty—his steely resolve to get things done despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles. I have some first-hand knowledge of that resolve because I was the manager of 57th St. Books when it opened in 1983 (and for about a dozen years thereafter); I was in on both the planning and working out of the plans for that enterprise, as well as the day-to-day operations that make or break any business.

So Jack was my boss—and in his own quiet way quite a tough cookie. That is, you didn’t want to disappoint him, to not do what he expected. And, of course, since he worked more than anybody else, whining about too much to do wouldn’t go very far, even if sympathy was expressed.

As I reflect on this quality after all these years, it seems to me analogous to the ruthlessness that artists must have about doing their work—you get it done, period. Think about the conclusion of Stephen Sondheim’s great song from Sunday in the Park with George, “Finishing the Hat”:

That however you live,
There’s a part of you always standing by,
Mapping out the sky,
Finishing a hat…
Starting on a hat…
Finishing a hat…
Look I made a hat…
Where there never was a hat.

Thank you, Jack, for making the hat that has served not only Hyde Park, but also a community of readers and scholars around the world, so well for so many years. Your will and work made it possible. Our best thanks for your efforts will be to treasure and maintain this remarkable institution, difficult as that will be after you leave.

Ave atque vale!