Independent Bookstores: Harvard Bookstore, Cambridge, MA

The first time I popped into Harvard Bookstore was a little over a year ago. I’d just gotten accepted to Emerson and my mom and I had come up to Boston to check it out. On a free afternoon we made our way to Harvard Square and stumbled upon the bookstore. I fell in love immediately, due largely to the tall, tall wooden bookshelves and the ladders that lead to the tops of them. After all, I’ve always been envious of the castle library in Beauty and the Beast.

But, of course, Harvard Bookstore (not affiliated, by the way, with Harvard University) is much more than beautiful shelves. This 80+ year old independent bookstore, constantly appearing on “best bookstore” lists around the internet, is a hub of literary activity in Cambridge.

The shelves are stocked with an impressive variety of books, often more literary and academically-oriented than you might find elsewhere, and the staff is well-versed in its offerings. They’re the kind of employees who can offer you recommendations based on the last book you liked, or the one you’re looking for now. Good for the mind, dangerous for the wallet. (Slightly) less dangerous for the wallet is the gigantic downstairs, which I would argue rivals my hometown’s Half Price Books for it’s selection of used and remainder gems.

The store also boasts an impressive author series whose recent guests include David Sedaris, Hilary Clinton, Stephen Greenblatt, and more. Most of these readings and discussions are held in the bookshop; those beautiful shelves are moved out of the way in favor of seating, and the audience crowds in to listen. Other events take place down the street at Brattle Theater.

It takes a special something for an indie to have survived the past decade or so of Chicken Little-style disruption in the publishing and book-selling industries. For Harvard, that includes its excellent customer service and careful stock curation, but also a forward-thinking readiness to embrace the shifts as they come. The store has a website that offers both the fun of browsing and the convenience of online shopping, and a partnership with Kobo e-readers that extends both services into the digital world. But in its most unique move, Harvard Bookstore was among the earliest adopters of print-on-demand technology, installing their Espresso Book Machine (aptly named Paige M. Gutenborg) in 2009. This machine can print to order nearly 5 million titles, some from the public domain and others through publisher-permission. It can print graduate dissertations, student publications (like Emerson College’s 48), and more. In a moment when a return to bookstore/printer combos and tiny print runs is not inconceivable, Harvard Bookstore is ahead of the game.

Clear your calendar for an afternoon (or evening – they’re open late!) and get lost. You won’t be disappointed.