Getting off the Red Line at Harvard Square is always an experience of excitement mixed with the slightest bit of dread. Visiting Harvard University’s campus and its Cambridge surroundings, it’s exhilarating to saunter among students who are learning from the most brilliant minds in the world. As I walk among the handsome red brick buildings of the campus’ gates and buildings, however, déjà vu creeps over me as I reflect on the cutthroat college admissions process that preoccupied me for the better part of my high school career, the one which seems to whisper to me that I am not worthy to be standing on such holy ground.
Whenever this latter sensation occurs, a trip to the Harvard Book Store is always an effective remedy to put my mind at ease. Located on Massachusetts Avenue, directly across from the southeast corner of the Harvard campus where three of the University’s libraries stand, the Book Store serves as an equalizer of sorts among the throngs of people who visit the storied institution.
The Harvard Book Store, while not affiliated with the eponymous University, attracts many of its students and faculty members. Even so, the Book Store’s clientele extends beyond a strictly academic circle.
“I think the Cambridge-Somerville community is definitely part of the customer base,” Alex Meriwether, the store’s general manager, said. “We definitely see our share of tourists.”
I spoke with Meriwether in mid-March at his office, which is located not at the Book Store’s retail location, but instead occupies the dimly lit first floor of a somewhat austere building rear. The entrance is on a quiet narrow street off Massachusetts Avenue that seems to be some amalgamation of a lane and an alley. His office in the back left corner has standard white walls and small bookshelves warmly illuminated by a desk lamp.
Meriwether is a quiet, bookish man and when I met him he was dressed surreptitiously in a black sweater and jeans. He has dark brown hair and a peacefully soft voice, which sounds somewhat like that of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, but not nearly as loud and with much less forced formality.
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Somewhat paradoxically, Meriwether told me that part of the reason that the Harvard Book Store appeals to so many different people outside of Harvard is its focus on selling academic titles—almost anything published under the aegis of a university press qualifies—alongside mainstream books.
“There are probably only a few stores in the country that are a combination of an independent general interest bookstore that has a kind of academic focus,” he said.
The scholarly focus of the store—perhaps inevitable, given its location—dates back to the founding of the store in 1932 by Mark Kramer, who opened what was initially a shop that sold new and used textbooks. His wife, Pauline, entered into the business after they were married in 1934, and their son, Frank, likewise became part of the venture in 1962.
Originally located on what is now John F. Kennedy Street, the Harvard Book Store moved to its current location in 1950. By 1987, it had expanded to include two of the neighboring storefronts.
The Kramers were the proprietors of Harvard Book Store for more than 75 years until Frank stepped down and sold the store in 2008 to the husband-and-wife team of Jeff Mayersohn and Linda Seamonson. Just outside of the store, on the edge of the block, a sign indicates that the small intersection is called the Frank, Mark, and Pauline Kramer Square, named by the City of Cambridge in honor of the family in 2007.
Over the course of its operation the business has changed radically—first, from the rise of big-box stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble, and in the last decade or so, because of the increasing presence of digital books and retailers.
One result of this abrupt seismic shift in book sales has been the rapid closure of several bookstores around Harvard Square. Meriwether recalled how Wordsworth shut its doors in 2004, among several other shops like Schoenhof’s, which sold foreign language books.
In the wake of these jolts to the bookselling landscape, a corresponding change has come in the nature of traditional competition between small bookstores. The relationship between these shops was once characterized by their competition and for each other’s customers. Recently that’s changed.
“We’re kind of in on the same mission,” Meriwether said. “We each have our specialized contributions to our individual communities.”
Even the traditional, almost clichéd enmity between small independent bookstores and large chains—think The Shop Around The Corner versus Fox Books in You’ve Got Mail—has seen remarkable changes. In Meriwether’s view, e-books’ intrusion upon the traditional book market has made the dynamics radically different from what they once were in only the last 15 years or so.
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For suburban and rural just as much as for metropolitan areas, “we want all these communities to have a brick-and-mortar bookstore, even if it’s a ‘chain bookstore,’” he said.
Meriwether emphasized the important role that any bookstore, but especially the Harvard Book Store, plays in community engagement with patrons. Part of the process of embedding the Book Store into its Cambridge home has been by hosting events—over 300 every year—featuring prominent authors including Martha Nussbaum, the philosophy professor at the University of Chicago, and Jim Lehrer, the former host of PBS Newshour.
Meriwether thinks that these events, where members of the public come to meet authors, are central to both the mission and economics of the Book Store, but are also important in their capacity to “give back” to members of the community.
The evening I visited, Preet Bharara—the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who was conspicuously fired by President Trump in 2017—was scheduled to visit, speaking as part of the book tour for his career reflection piece, Doing Justice. Harvard Book Store had reserved Harvard University’s Memorial Church, a short walk away from the store, for an interview between Bharara and Michael Sandel, the noted professor of political philosophy at Harvard.
The line to get into the event stretched all the way from the middle of campus out to the street outside the University’s gates. Inside the church, sparingly adorned with its whitewashed walls, shoulder-height pews, and plaques commemorating Harvard alumni who had perished in various American wars, hundreds of people came to see the ticketed event. In the process, as a sign placed on the altar indicated, they were indeed “supporting their independent bookstore.”
Images by Doug Girardot / For the Heights