Bookbinder Doubles As Inventor

Marshall witnesses changing Square from corner of Brattle and JFK Streets

Amy Sutherland

Robert Marshall, a bookbinder, works at the Harvard Book and Binding Service on the third floor of the building at the corner of JFK and Brattle Streets. Marshall has worked in the Square for the last 36 years.

A sign in the window of the wedge-like building squeezed into the corner where Brattle meets JFK Street advertises “Old & Used Books, Roman Coins Bought and Sold.” It beckons toward Room 306, home to the Harvard Book and Binding Service and one of Harvard Square’s most venerable and idiosyncratic characters.

Upstairs, the shop’s door is decorated with military airplane stickers and a “No Smoking” sign. When it opens, a doorbell goes off in the back room—giving Robert Marshall, the proprietor, just enough time to put out his stubby cigar and open the window before emerging to greet his customer.

The store’s cluttered rooms and eclectic collections suit Marshall, a short, stocky man with a thick Boston accent. The used books packed into the shop’s shelves include a substantial selection of works on Nixon-era politics and a number of nursing and emergency-rescue textbooks.

A glass display case shows off the promised coins, but Marshall explains that a friend of his manages the coin collection. Marshall is the book man.

But the shop reflects more than its proprietor’s obvious text fetish. On the walls, Marshall proudly exhibits several blueprints next to a signed and sealed patent certificate bearing his name—one of several he holds.

In his workshop in the back room, he sits at a table that groans under the weight of old books in various states of disrepair. Some lie sandwiched between unbound covers, and a few are clamped in vices he uses to align their bindings.

The walls of the workshop are matted with photographs and old correspondence. An old orange couch sits in the corner. It looks suspiciously as if it’s also served as a bed.

Marshall himself, a polymath with sensibilities far from the commercial mainstream, recalls a dying Square culture shaped by personal ingenuity and happenstance. His world of books and ephemera overlaps with the University’s, but today, he says, their relationship is less symbiotic than it once was.



BUYING INTO THE MARKET

When Marshall, who grew up in nearby Lynn, Mass., first came to Harvard Square in 1970, it was filled with orange Hare Krishna robes and student protests against the Vietnam War, he says. Vendors gathered in front of the Holyoke Center, selling handmade jewelry and other artifacts of a counterculture zeitgeist.

Marshall says he decided to sell books because he didn’t want to apply for a vendor’s license.

“The First Amendment was my vendor’s license,” he says.

He went to the Brattle Book Shop, which adjoins the Boston Common, and talked the owner into selling him a suitcase full of 18th-century books on credit. Then he set up shop on a patch of Square pavement and sold books to passersby at lunchtime.

Within a year, he had learned about rare books and how to find good ones. Soon, his customers included Houghton Library, which holds Harvard’s rare book and manuscript collection. He regularly sold single volumes at four-figure prices.

He decided the time had come to move his business out of the elements and rented a shop above a German restaurant called the Wursthaus, in the building that is now Citizen’s Bank. But Marshall didn’t want his store to be just another old-book shop. He perceived a market for someone who could repair old books, but couldn’t find anyone to teach him how.

Then, browsing in Houghton Library one day, he stumbled across an 18th-century French dictionary, with an illustrated entry on bookbinding. Using the explanation, Marshall taught himself to bind books. He does not speak French.

“I couldn’t read a word of it, so I just figured it out from the pictures,” he says.

In the years since Marshall opened his shop, he says he has watched many other small booksellers leave the Square because of rising rents.

As he sees it, the extension of the Red Line, which used to end at Harvard, choked the spirit of the Square. The steady traffic of commuters spilling out from the end of the line kept small businesses alive. Now, he says, Square culture is at the mercy of the University, which is happy to see local storefronts filled with banks and big chain stores.

“It seems like Harvard has turned its back on Harvard Square,” he says.



BOOKBINDING TO BIOTECH

Marshall’s curiosity has led him beyond book restoration and into other, more creative, pursuits. A self-taught inventor, he’s eager to show his collection of scientific patents to anyone who drops by his shop.

His most recent invention is a visual stethoscope, which resembles a pocket-sized flying saucer with lights that pulse in time with the patient’s heartbeat.

He explains that he designed it for use in ambulances, where it can be impossible to hear a pulse clearly.

For Marshall, inspiration often strikes in peculiar ways. He says that the idea for a visual stethoscope came to him while he was watching television and the tube burnt out, leaving just the sound. He said he would not reveal more details about the design—or its connection to a burnt-out television—until his patent is secure.

Marshall says he began his scientific career at the age of 12, when his father gave him a microscope and helped him set up a laboratory next to his bedroom. Their neighbor, a pathologist, gave him slides of organs preserved in formaldehyde, and Marshall says he discovered a method of breeding paramecia—single-celled organisms—in a mixture of grass, water, and cocoa powder.

“My mother thought the protozoa would climb out and attack the house,” he says, but he assured her they couldn’t survive outside containment.

Marshall never attended college, but says he enrolled at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences for a few semesters from 1977 to 1978, while running his book and binding shop.

“I was a special student at the Graduate School,” he says, “which means they collect money from you, and, if there’s space available in a class, they let you in.”

At Harvard, Marshall says he took courses on the history of medicine and the biology of cancer. In the history of medicine course, he says he learned about the discovery of benzopyrene, a potent carcinogen, which was first detected when chimney sweeps in the 19th century developed scrotum cancer with unusual frequency after sitting on their brushes to clean inside chimneys.

In his biology of cancer course, Marshall says he learned that benzopyrene, like all compounds produced from burning organic materials, is hydrophobic.

He says these facts inspired him to design a better cigarette filter, which he called ROMAR. The tip of the filter is hydrophobic, so it filters benzopyrene far more effectively than a standard filter, he says as he shows data from his preliminary tests on the device.

None of Marshall’s inventions has been produced commercially, although he says he believes that tobacco companies have found out about ROMAR and are waiting for his patent to expire before they begin using the design.

Marshall’s inventions straddle several fields. He says this diversity reflects the breadth and spontaneity of his interests.

“I just see something that’s being done in a complicated way, and I see how it can be done simply,” he says.

This tendency has not always worked to his benefit. He was once hired at $500 per day to fix a blood-analysis machine in a testing laboratory, and immediately realized that the tank for deionizing the machine’s water supply was contaminated with bacteria. It took him only two days to clean the tank and flush clean water through the system.

“They were paying me $500 a day, and I finished in two days!” he reflects. “What a moron!”

—Staff writer Virginia A. Fisher can be reached at vafisher@fas.harvard.edu.