As the world continues to deal with the ramifications of the Coronavirus pandemic, many small businesses have struggled to stay open. The Gate sat down with Jenny Clines, the operations director at the Seminary Co-Op bookstores—a non-profit bookstore founded in 1961 with two branches in Hyde Park—to see how the Co-Op has been navigating COVID-19 over the past few months.
The Gate: It's been several months since the lockdown in Chicago began. There have been a lot of changing regulations, but what are operations like at the bookstores currently?
Jenny Clines: So operations look really different right now than they did several months ago. Both stores are still closed to the public, but we are fulfilling a ton of online orders. The community has been so supportive and responsive to us during this time, and we're really pleased and excited by how many orders we've had. And that has kept us running at full speed. So there's been plenty to do with that. We also have curbside pickup options. We have local delivery around the Hyde Park area and into some other neighborhoods as well. So it looks different, but it's still really busy, which is fantastic. And our events and marketing department is doing wonderful things, working with other community members to get some virtual events going again.
Gate: That's actually really great to hear. At the beginning of the lockdown, Seminary Co-Op quickly had a GoFundMe which ended up raising over $180,000. It was almost surprising because [the bookstores] are such an institution in Hyde Park.
Clines: Running a bookstore is challenging financially. There's definitely a risk. And I don't think we're past that risk at this point. Having a bookstore that is profitable is really hard, if not almost impossible, even in great circumstances. So when we added having to close for COVID and the different stressors that have come up from that, it is an extreme challenge to stay on top of the finances of running these two wonderful stores, even though they are so popular. It's just hard even in good circumstances.
Gate: For bookstores, Amazon's a really big competitor, especially with how quickly they can get books out. USPS having issues can’t help either. There was a concern among some students during Spring Quarter about a delay in receiving books from the Seminary Co-Op. How have the bookstores been improving for the upcoming school year?
Clines: I think offering local delivery and having our option to pick up at the curb has been really helpful. We have heard many times from community members that it was just the answer to some prayers on getting things out more quickly. We are moving quickly in the store in our system, so people shouldn't be that concerned. I would still recommend getting in orders as quickly as possible just to give yourself some grace room.
Gate: The Seminary Co-Op is a nonprofit bookstore. Apart from certain legal and tax ramifications, what do you think that status signifies for the bookstores?
Clines: The store becoming a nonprofit recognized how we have been functioning for a long time. Although we have Co-Op members, nobody was getting dividends from participating in that. This just allowed us to accurately represent how our stores are governed.
Gate: The Co-Op normally puts on a number of speaker events during the year and are really active in supporting authors of the books that y'all sell. How have you been, if at all, incorporating that programming into a COVID world?
Clines: We're excited to come back with virtual events. Our events and marketing department is working really hard on featuring authors that we would normally feature and working with faculty. But also, we're doing a lot of partnerships with other organizations in the community, like the American Writers Museum.
Gate: Alongside the Black Lives Matter protests over the last several months, there’s been a big reckoning in terms of supporting Black authors, thinkers, and academics. Especially with the Seminary Co-Op being more of an academic-based store, how has the Co-Op thought about their role in supporting Black authors?
Clines: We take it very seriously. With both of our stores on the South Side of Chicago, we have always considered it a real priority to have diverse voices on our shelves and also represented in programming. That has been central to our purpose for as long as we've existed. We are continuing to refine how we think about that. In light of current events, we're continuing to think about how we highlight those voices. It's something that we take really seriously and we're committed to.
Gate: For anyone who will be reading this interview, how should we recommend supporting the Seminary Co-Op, authors, and just bookstores in general, as the pandemic ensues?
Clines: We are extremely lucky to be in the community. Not just in the University of Chicago community, but Hyde Park and the South Side in general, people have been super supportive. And we have seen incredible numbers of orders coming in. We've sold over thirty thousand books since we've closed the doors. And that's over fourteen thousand online orders, which is phenomenal. Continuing to shop with us is the most basic and most wonderful way to support us. We also do have the GoFundMe that helps us make sure that we can keep running smoothly and can keep getting the things that we need to function. And, this has been in the press a lot lately, but being patient with small businesses, while the world is working differently, is really an important part. And, again, our community has been really responsive and supportive and patient with us and just continuing to know that sometimes things will move a little more slowly.
Gate: What are you reading right now? What's your book recommendation?
Clines: I am reading right now a book that comes out in early September called Daddy. It's by Emma Klein. Her previous book The Girls was a major bestseller. This new one is a compilation of short stories. It's all about different kinds of people who are trying to fit in and who are making questionable decisions as they try to fit into whatever dynamic they're working with. And it's really excellent, and it's a little bit psychologically intense.
Gate: Any last words on things that you would like our readers to know?
Clines: We miss having [people] in our store. I mean, that's the most important part. And while we are working really hard to keep things going and to keep up with this new different pace, it is not lost on us that we don't get to talk to customers right now. Not in the same way anyways.
Claire Cappaert is a second-year majoring in Public Policy and (maybe) Russian & East European Studies. This past summer, she interned for Alderman Michele Smith and, as part of the Milgrom Social Justice Fellowship, worked at a non-profit that provides literacy programming to homeless youth. On campus, Claire is on the board of EUChicago and is part of NSP. She enjoys drinking excessive amounts of coffee and tea, exploring Chicago, and being near the lake.