Bookstores Galore

From $85,000 photographs of Dostoyevsky to store owners who roll their own cigarettes—the things that make the Harvard Square bookstore scene great.

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David I. Fulton-Howard

The scene at Lame Duck Books, where on any given day, you'll find the most rare of signed manuscripts.

CORRECTION APPENDED

At the Harvard Coop, a “used” sticker marks a book whose age and previous ownership entitles the buyer to a discounted price but an inferior product. At some of Harvard Square’s lesser known bookstores, however, “used” carries different connotations.

The Square harbors a multitude of bookstores whose stock and location span far more genres and square feet than the subsections of the Coop. Currently, there are more than 10 bookstores in the Square, itself just one triangular part of all of Cambridge—and this number is a new low. As recently as a few years ago, rents weren’t as high and there were even more bookstores dotting the Square’s storefront scene.

You might think competition between sellers would be steep: They’re all just selling books, right? But in this matter, as in much else, the book stores of the Square defy expectations.

Relations between Harvard’s booksellers are much more amicable than one might think. Each store inhabits a distinct niche that sets it apart from the others. James & Devon Gray Booksellers at 12 Arrow St. carry books written before 1700, while Lame Duck Books, in the basement just below it, specializes in modern intellectual history. Both bookstores have a pretty pricy stock—Lame Duck has a rare photograph of Fyodor Dostoyevsky selling for $85,000—but it’s worth it to go into either one just to browse. Entering one of these stores feels like taking a trip to a museum, but instead of surly guards telling visitors to back off, friendly owners happily present the treasures from their troves.

“We probably have the best philosophy section in New England,” said John Petrovato, the owner of Raven Used Books on 52 JFK St. “We have sections that other stores wouldn’t have.”

Also in the Square, the Grolier Poetry Book Shop on Plympton Street first opened in 1927 and quickly became a favorite of poets like E. E. Cummings, Class of 1915, and T. S. Eliot, Class of 1909. It remains one of only two not-for-profit bookstores in the country. The Globe Corner Bookstore at 90 Mt. Auburn St. specializes in travel, while Revolution Books at 1156 Mass. Ave. sells primarily Communist literature. And Schoenhof’s Foreign Books, at 76 Mt. Auburn St. #A, founded in 1856, has the largest selection of foreign language books in the country, according to their Web site. Daniel Eastman, the store’s general director, said, “We import books from at least 100 different countries, and we probably deal with 4,000 different publishers and suppliers.”

And that’s not even the whole lot of them.


ECCENTRICS AND ANARCHISTS

The distinct personality of the individual store undoubtedly is due in large part to each one’s idiosyncratic owner.

Robert A. Mitchell is the owner of Harvard Book and Binding on the corner of JFK and Brattle streets. When FM visited one weekday afternoon, inquiring after Mitchell, the solemn man who came to the door introduced himself as Mitchell’s brother, and explained that Mitchell had passed away that day—then laughed. “Just kidding! I’m Bob.” The multi-talented Mitchell might show a customer how a water filter he has patented works by folding up an 18th century map, or perhaps have the customer try on the emergency parachute that he keeps in the front of the store, but his life in the Square hasn’t been all fun and games. [SEE CORRECTION BELOW]

“When I came here in 1970 I was more or less destitute. I came here from a broken marriage, broken body as well from a [airplane] crash, you know, just broken,” Mitchell said. “How do you sell things without a license? I chose books because of the First Amendment.” Mitchell’s first big sale of a suitcase full of rare used books bought him his store.

Mitchell isn’t the only quirky personality in the Square. “Most people who own used bookstores are unemployable in the [conventional] sense, either eccentrics or anarchists or just loose cannons of sorts,” Petrovato said. “I guess I would be an anarchist. I don’t like to work for anybody.” But Raven Books has no political affiliation: “I have a lot of books that I don’t agree with politically, but these books need to be read.“

Saul Roll, the manager of Lame Duck Books, is a completely different breed, though no less eccentric. He might appear a bit pretentious (read: he rolls his own cigarettes), but he has a genuine love of books and feels that they should be valued very highly.

“People would buy jewels for $400,000, but [jewels] aren’t going to change the history of the world,” said Roll, who will happily show a customer first editions and signed copies of some of the world’s most influential books.

When asked about his favorite book, Eastman expressed a popular sentiment: “Anything. I’ll read a sugar label.”

Books have more than just sentimental value to some sellers. Harvard students are probably unaccustomed to seeing Frenchie (no last name given) and her partner Ken O’Brien, the formerly homeless owners of the movable bookstand outside of J. August Co. on Mass. Ave., without their faithful cat and dog—but they’re inside now, and they won’t be coming back out. “We got an apartment just by selling books without any Section 8 government help, or anything to do with that,” Frenchie said. “A lot of people come up and ask us, ‘Where’s the dog and cat?’ and we tell ’em, ‘Oh, they’re in now! We’ve moved in!’” Frenchie’s new occupation is popular with tourists and Harvard students alike, as well as with her pets. “If I was to try to get my cat to go out again, she wouldn’t have it.”


COMMUNAL VIBE

With so many book-lovers out there running their specialized stores, competition just doesn’t make sense. Instead, the book venders of Harvard Square have established a community.

“Most booksellers buy from each other. When nobody’s buying, [booksellers] buy. We give them the book to sell, and if they don’t sell it we take the book back,” Mitchell said. Similarly, store owners are happy to direct customers to other stores if they don’t have exactly what the customer is looking for.

“We all know each other,” Petrovato said. “That’s the nice thing about the used book world. We’re more in solidarity with each other than in competition in a lot of ways.”

“Everywhere among booksellers there’s a camaraderie, typically very eccentric but nice people,” agreed Eastman.

Each bookseller has a unique and genuine affection for the books that they’re selling; and if that makes them a bit odd, it also makes them great to sit down and talk with.

CORRECTION: The Dec. 5 magazine article "Bookstores Galore" gave the wrong name for the owner of Harvard Book and Binding. He is Robert A. Marshall, not Robert A. Mitchell.

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