Jack Cella to retire as general manager of Seminary Co-op after 43 years

Jack Cella will retire as general manager of the Seminary Co-op Bookstore on Oct. 13, the Co-op’s Board of Directors has announced.

In his 43 years as general manager, Cella saw the Co-op grow to 50,000 members and earn a reputation as one of the nation’s preeminent academic booksellers. He also oversaw the opening of two branch locations—57th Street Books and the Newberry Library Bookstore—and helped the Co-op weather the many challenges that independent bookstores face.

“In many ways Jack has been synonymous with the store,” the board wrote in a message to members. “His love of books, his deep respect for the Co-op's members and customers and his vast storehouse of knowledge have come to symbolize the culture of the Co-op and what members value most about it. His careful attention to building an extraordinary inventory of books has made the Co-op a destination for book-lovers from Hyde Park, across Chicago and around the world.”

Cella’s wife, Laura Prail, also will retire from her position at the bookstore.

The Seminary Co-op Bookstore opened in 1961 with 17 members. It has played a central role in the intellectual life of the University of Chicago, and its members have included writers and public figures such as Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, Barack and Michelle Obama, Friedrich Hayek and Harold Washington.

The Co-op began a new chapter in 2012, when it moved from its original home in the basement of 5757 S. University Ave. to a new, larger space at McGiffert House, 5751 S. Woodlawn. Meghan E. Doherty, PhD’10, and Jasmine Kwong, AB’06, captured the Co-op’s final months in its original location in the Seminary Co-op Documentary Project, which resulted in an exhibition at the Special Collections Research Center.

Cella worked closely with Tigerman McCurry Architects on their renovation of McGiffert House, which received a 2013 “Best of Show” award from the American Society of Interior Designers.

Cella moved to Hyde Park in 1967 to study at the Divinity School. He began to work at the Co-op in 1969, and was named general manager in 1970.

“What I will remember most is all the spectacular people I've met at the Co-op—the students and faculty who are vividly in my life,” Cella said.

Cella fondly recalled Nobel Prize-winning physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, a frequent Co-op patron. “When he died his widow came and said that Chandra wanted his ashes to be spread in several places that meant the most to him during his life, and one of them was the Seminary Co-op bookstore. I was privileged to know him, and many others like him,” Cella said.

Cella’s taste and expertise brought a distinctive intellectual tone and sense of community to the Co-op, said Bruce Lincoln, the Caroline E. Haskell Distinguished Service Professor in the Divinity School, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and the Committee on Medieval Studies.

“Like everyone, I wish him the absolute best,” Lincoln said. “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.”

The Board of Directors has retained executive search firm Isaacson, Miller to undertake a national search for Cella’s replacement. Nancy Maull, PhD’74, is leading the search.