A Life in Books Recalled

CORRECTION APPENDED

Even as a 10-year-old, Frank P. Kramer seemed destined to be seen as a bookseller.

“One day, I was in the [Harvard Book Store] with my father, waiting to go to lunch,” he says. “My father was in conversation, and I wanted to go. Then this guy came up to me and said, ‘Do you have Kant’s ‘Prolegomena?’ It scared the hell out of me!”

But as he sits in J.P. Licks Ice Cream Shop in Harvard Square on a chilly Thursday morning, Kramer shows no preadolescent nerves when talking about his career.

In fact, the now-former owner of the Harvard Book Store and the now-closed Harvard Book Store Café also holds several other posts in the community, besides neighborhood book-monger.

He sits on the board of both the Harvard Square Business Association and Beacon Crafts, a local but world-renowned publisher.

He co-founded Cambridge Local First, an organization intended to foster support for local Square businesses, which has now has over 250 members.

He was appointed to the Harvard Square Advisory Committee, which discusses development in the area.

But it is his 46-year management of the Harvard Book Store, which his father founded in 1932, that has garnered him the most attention.

As local writer Anne Bernays says, “He is an institution!”

A FAMILY TRADE

Kramer was born in Cambridge, Mass. and was raised in Lexington and Brookline. His parents met in 1933 at Harvard Summer School, were married a year later, and became booksellers in the store his father founded.

“The Harvard connection is very important to us!” Kramer laughs.

Kramer’s family opened their store in the midst of the Great Depression on what is now John F. Kennedy Street, in the spot now occupied by Urban Outfitters. His father borrowed $300 from his grandfather to found the company, Kramer says.

Growing up in a bookselling family, he says, he was always exposed to lively conversation about the bookselling business.

“I grew up hearing it as table talk—both my parents worked there,” he says.

Kramer stayed in New England into young adulthood and went from college to college: first the University of Massachusetts, then Colby College, and then Boston University, all while taking Harvard summer school classes for credit. He eventually graduated with a degree in Philosophy and Psychology from BU.

But unforeseen circumstances sent him into the family business.

“When I came into the business, I was 20; my father had died unexpectedly,” he says. “I was a BU student—they were not treated very well at bookstores. If you wanted a textbook, who else had it, apart from a college store?”

He channeled this dissatisfaction towards a constructive end, he says, bringing used textbooks to his The Harvard Book Store’s shelves.

“We tried to provide an alternative to stores where students were treated like a guaranteed sale,” he says.

KEEPING WITH THE TIMES

The Harvard Book Store has succeeded where other local stores have failed: It has survived in a rapidly changing commercial environment, where superstores and the Internet have drawn customers away from local enterprises—particularly bookstores.

The current economic climate hasn’t made anything easier. “It’s hard not to worry about a financial crisis of this dimension,” Kramer says.

But things have not always been this way, financial crisis or not.

“There was a time in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, where there were 24 bookstores that brought people to Harvard Square from all over,” he says. “It was a Mecca for books...People would wander from one bookstore to another.”

The Harvard Book Store has kept itself afloat, Kramer says, because its owners have been able to change with the times. Kramer points to the decision to sell paperback books in the 1960s as one such example.

“In the ’60s, paperbacks were a new thing. Bookshops were slow to catch on,” he says. “In the 60s we went in heavy on paper backs; that was considered innovative at the time.”

And starting in the ’80s, the store began its celebrated speaker series—which has featured such authors as Salman Rushdie, New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, and former Crimson Vice President Jennifer 8. Lee.

“We were one of the first bookstores that brought in an author for more than just an autograph session,” Kramer says. “We had events where an author would read from the book and answer questions.”

Many of these talks took place at the Harvard Book Store Café on Newbury Street, which has since closed. The Boston Public Library and Cambridge First Parish Church—which can hold 700 people—have also hosted Harvard Book Store visitors.

A COMMUNITY MAN

Kramer recently sold the Harvard Book Store to Jeff Mayersohn ’73 and Linda Seamonson of Wellesley, Mass. But Kramer remains a well-known member of the Cambridge and Harvard Square community.

A special event, titled “Frank Kramer—A Celebration” was recently held in his honor. Area residents gathered at the Harvard Book Store to hear local authors speak glowingly of him and his work. Bernays, an author who spoke at the commemoration, says that the event was “remarkable” and praised the now-retired bookseller.

“He’s a very modest guy; he is reserved and soft spoken,” she says. “I’ve never heard anyone say anything—even just a tiny bit edged—about him.”

His contributions to the community are widely admired.

“He’s had a tremendous commitment to the community to bring the highest quality—authors and events—to the store,” says Denise A. Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association. “I can’t say enough about the family—it’s been so beloved and so respected.”

Kramer says he’ll continue to participate in the life of the community and the Harvard Book Store. Even though he has passed on ownership of the store, he still keeps an eye on operations and meets with the new proprietors twice a week.

“He and his wife Linda are the perfect buyers,” he says. “ [Jeff] is not only a book lover—but a businessman.”

—Staff writer Betsy L. Mead can be reached at emead@fas.harvard.edu.


CORRECTION APPENDED


The Nov. 25 story, "A Life in Books Recalled," misspelled the name of an author quoted in the piece. Her name is Anne Bernays, not Anne Bernay.