It should come as no surprise that Harvard Square is known worldwide as one of the best places to go if you're looking to buy a book. Catering to academia's seemingly insatiable appetite for books, the Square boasts one of the widest selections of bookstores in the world, with 25 shops crammed into a few square blocks.
Luckily, Harvard Square seems to have dodged the recent onslaught of identical chain book stores. The Square's bookstore owners know that Harvard's, shall we say, "intellectually motivated" clientele know their Tom Wolfe from their Thomas Wolfe, and usually choose Jack Kerouac over Jackie Collins.
As a result, most of Harvard's bookstores offer a selection that you won't find in the Waldenbooks at the mall back home. Of course, most shops display the standard selection of bestsellers and books on tape. But look a little harder and you'll find that the Square has a store to fit almost every book lover's taste (and pocketbook).
For students, the most popular bookstore in the square is probably Harvard Bookstore at 1256 Mass Ave. In addition to having the best window display, Harvard Bookstore offers a good selection of both new and used books, and is particularly strong in the social sciences. Although it's a little weak in the fiction department, Harvard Bookstore's extensive non-fiction selection seems to attract the creme de la creme of Harvard's book shoppers (I once found poetry guru Helen Vendler's Mastercard on the floor near the bestselling paperbacks).
The store is laid out in a way that makes browsing irresistible, its knowledgable staff luring you inside to the attractive displays featuring the newest books. Venture further into the store and you will find one of the square's best selections of publisher's overstock books at huge discounts. And if you're looking for some cheap thrills, check out the humor section's display of flip books, which feature unlikely scenes of women giving birth and frogs in heat.
Downstairs is a reasonably thorough selection of half-price used paperbacks--again, anchored by impressive political science and sociology sections. But don't count on Harvard Bookstore to supply used texts--chances are they won't have all the books you need for your courses.
For that, the only place to go is still The Coop at 1400 Mass Ave. With a monopolistic stranglehold on textbook-seekers, The Coop is Harvard's inefficient overly-corporate attempt to run a department store. Don't be deceived by the Coop's three stories of book offerings, and don't be lured in by promises of an ever-diminishing membership rebate. The Coop's selection is utterly unremarkable. Shopping there for anything but textbooks--when there are so many fine bookstores in the Square--is downright criminal.
The Coop's first floor hardcover department is uninspiring, although not for a lack of Bibles (for some strange reason the Coop has a huge scripture section). And first floor browsers are periodically accosted by encyclopedia salespeople who always seem to be raffling off something. The second floor paperback section is slightly better, but the metal turnstiles ominously guarding every entrance never let you forget the Coop's impersonal approach to bookselling.
The Coop's third-floor texbook department is overpriced and unattractive, and only the truly cultivated Coop-shopper can make textbook selection fun: When shopping for this semester's textbooks, walk around and pick out all the great books required for courses you're not taking. Buy them instead. You'll be much happier.
Down the block, Cambridge Booksmith (nee Paperback Booksmith), at 25 Brattle St., is the exact opposite of the Coop. Understated and decidedly unglitzy, the Booksmith looks more like a book warehouse. But don't be fooled--its unpretentious paperback offerings are inexpensive and throrough, and bear the mark of a well-read staff.
It is a joy to browse through the Booksmith's centrally located table loaded with "paperback favorites" (Marquez, Kundera, Hurston et al) and the store's slightly hidden "New and Newsworthy" shelf boasts a great selection of current-events related books. The Booksmith does have some hard-covers (mostly bestsellers at up to 30 percent off), but its real strength lies in its unbeatable paperback selection.
Across the street is the huge, two-level Wordsworth, whose arrival a few years back forever shifted the dynamics of bookselling in Harvard Square. Wordsworth prides itself on its knowledgable staff and its large selection, but its labyrinth-like layout makes it difficult for browsers and positively horrifying for claustraphobics. But if you're looking for a specific book, Wordsworth is probably your best bet.
The newest (and self-proclaimed largest) bookstore in Harvard Square is Barillari Books on Mt. Auburn Street, near the post office. Barillari's is decidedly upscale, its pricey coffee-table books and espresso bar catering to the Square's yuppier elements. In fact, Barillari's actually delivers its books via room service to visitors at the Charles Hotel next door.
If its hotel-lobby decor is not too much of a turn-off, you can find some good buys among Barillari's huge paperback selection. But the store lacks the personal touch of some of the Square's smaller shops, and you are likely to leave feeling underdressed and not the least bit thirsty for espresso.
Often overlooked, Reading International at 47 Brattle Street is one of the Square's true bookstore gems. RI does not have the huge selection offered by some of its larger neighbors, but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. Its comprehensive magazine collection is a pure joy for browsers, with hundreds of often obscure journals, many of which you won't find at the Out of Town News.
Reading International also takes care to highlight books of particular interest to the selective reader. Special racks devoted to Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners, and an entire section featuring books by local authors make browsing at RI a unique experience. And although it seems to be out of the way, RI is on the corner of Brattle and Church streets, making it a perfect place to kill an hour while waiting for a table at the Border Cafe.
If these Harvard bookstores seem altogether too bourgeois for you, try Revolution Books, at 38 JFK Street. Revolution Books offers every manner of leftist literature, and probably has more copies of the Communist Manifesto anywhere outside of, well, Cuba. In addition, Revolution Books has all the paraphenalia that a good leftist needs to lead the fight against oppression (bumper stickers, buttons, etc.).
Those with anything but the strongest leftist leanings are bound to be unsettled by some aspect of the store's political agenda (particularly its recent affinity for the Intifada). But surrounded by a slew of "mainstream" bookstores, Revolution Books offers something truly unique in the Square, and is worth a try.
If you're looking for a real bargain, try one of the Square's many fine used bookstores. The recently relocated McIntyre and Moore has the largest selection, and also sells crystals. Used bookstores like Mac and Moore may not always have the particular book you're looking for, but they are always good for browsing and an occassional low-cost purchase. Mac and Moore has an extensive non-fiction section (especially strong in the social sciences), but its fiction offerings are sparse.
Somewhat smaller but more sophisticated is Pangloss Bookshop at 65 Mt. Auburn St., specializing in hardcover non-fiction. Pangloss's academic offerings, although a bit pricey, attract Cambridge's intellectual elite, and have made the store a favorite among Harvard faculty members.
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