Harvard Book Store Celebrates 75 Years of Literature and Community

In the days before Harvard Square became a prime breeding ground for banks and storefronts filled with eyeglass frames, window displays were dressed with another kind of intellectual accessory. Books used to be abundant in the Square in the 60s, readily available at more than 20 independent book stores. Now, as 2007 draws to a close, Harvard Book Store celebrates the end of its 75th year in business. Its ability to hold its ground while its fellow locally owned bookstores have fallen prey to corporate outsiders means that the bookstore is now Harvard Square’s premier independent center for all things literary.

STEADY GROUND

In January 2007, the Harvard University Planning Office conducted a survey to determine the Harvard community’s opinions on the Square’s “retail mix and urban character.” Fourty-four percent of respondents identified the abundance of chains as their least favorite aspect of the Square; 28 percent said that it had become a worse place to visit because independent stores had been driven away. When asked which retail establishment was their favorite, respondents picked Harvard Book Store over popular Square destinations like the Coop and CVS.

These optimistic statistics coincided with the beginning of the bookstore’s anniversary celebration. The festivities continued in October, when the intersection of Mass. Ave. and Plympton Street was renamed “Frank, Mark & Pauline Kramer Square” in honor of the family that founded and still operates the store.

Boston native Mark Kramer first opened the doors of Harvard Book Store­—then located on what is now called JFK Street—in 1932.

“It was a used bookstore primarily,” says his son, Frank S. Kramer, who took over ownership after his father’s death in 1962. “And my mother joined him in the business after a couple of years and they ran that bookstore, which was really a pretty small bookstore, all used books. Just two people running the store and probably my father’s sister worked in the store as a bookkeeper, and they did that all through the Depression until 1950 when they moved up to one of the three storefronts we have now on Mass. Ave.”

As other Square book stores expanded, contracted, and eventually went bankrupt, Harvard Book Store’s used book selection, its prime location, and the flexibility that being a small, local bookstore allows kept it up and running. Kramer also credits Harvard and its students for the success of the Book Store.

“The Harvard student body is an extremely important part of our market base, whereas [other local book stores] really depended very strongly on Brattle Street, a lot of the wealthier customers, and a lot of the people moving toward the west,” Kramer says.

‘A VIBRANT INTELLECTUAL COMMUNITY’

Harvard Book Store has also given back to the community that has supported it. Through abundant author events and special promotions such as the Frequent Buyers Program and the newly created Signed First Edition Club, the book store has taken active steps in creating a literary community here in Cambridge.

“Most of our events are free events,” marketing manager Heather L. Gain says. “We try to make them as accessible to the public as possible. When we have large off-site events, we have $5 tickets, but you flip over the ticket and it’s a $5 coupon, so you’re getting your money right back.”

The bookstore’s award-winning Author Event Series, which brought 280 authors to Cambridge last year, has drawn a variety of famous and up-and-coming authors, including Al Gore ’69, Norman Mailer ’43, and a then-unknown Barack Obama.

“When we had Barack Obama, I think there were, like, 20 people in the store,” says Gain.

“[General Manager] Carole [M. Horne] and I were both there,” says Kramer, “and we don’t remember it.”

And the authors, as well as the audience, enjoy the experience.

Psychology professor Daniel T. Gilbert, author of the best-selling “Stumbling on Happiness,” fondly remembers promoting his book at Harvard Book Store. “[Harvard Book Store] is one of the nation’s last great independent booksellers and one of Cambridge’s great treasures,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The staff work hard to create a vibrant intellectual community outside the University’s walls.”

THE MISSION CONTINUES

In many ways, Harvard Book Store’s first mission statement still drives it today. “[We] thrive by holding to our values while adapting to a changing world,” the statement reads. “We honor literary traditions as we make available new voices and new ideas.”

This combination of local history and literary culture remains present in the bookstore. As Gain emphasizes, what makes Harvard Book Store truly special is the intimate relationship between the owners and employees and the community they serve.

“It’s a place in which booksellers are constantly feeding off each other and their own knowledge base,” she says. “There’s a passion for books that all of our booksellers have.”

—Staff writer Beryl C.D. Lipton can be reached at blipton@fas.harvard.edu.