Specialty Bookstores: Stories from the Square

Specialty Bookstores in the Square
Tiffany Chi, Rebecca A. Schuetz, Michelle B. Timmerman, and Xi Yu

To find book offerings in Cambridge beyond the standard inventory of the Coop, it helps to peruse the city’s streets and read between the buildings.

Specialty bookstores carrying anything from used rare books to travel maps are overlooked but not underloved, subtly settling into the landscape of Harvard Square over the years.

In addition to the stories on their shelves, these bookstores’ histories are tales of their own.

BETTER WITH AGE

Raven Used Books on JFK Street very nearly wasn’t Raven Used Books at all.

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“Originally we were thinking of calling it something ridiculous like Acme Books and Posters...but that would have been funny for about a week, and then it would get old,” says John C. Petrovato, the store’s owner.

But influenced by his former business partner’s love for birds and a classic literary enthusiast’s affection for Poe, Petrovato gave the name Raven Used Books to his first bookstore in Northampton nearly 20 years ago. Since then, Petrovato has opened a store in Amherst and, about five years ago, another in Cambridge.

The decision to do business in Cambridge was a provident one—Raven Used Books houses approximately 15,000 books and sells 5,000 books per month.

“There are probably less than 10 places in the country that could do what I do in Cambridge,” says Petrovato, who contends that Raven’s strongest section, philosophy, is perhaps one of the top 10 collections in the country.

As the owner of a used bookstore, Petrovato has a different outlook on the true selling point of a book.

“I don’t fetishize about books in the same way other people do; for me, the book is really about the content. It’s not really about the first edition,” he says.

Even popular philosophy books—not textbooks—fall on the cheap side. A philosophy book with a retail price of $200 may sell for $50, and very few books will sell over that price, according to Petrovato.

The Cambridge clientele is also refreshing for Petrovato, who had been accosted by New Age fanatics at locations in Western Mass. and informed that he had had a “violent birth” and “needed to be channeled.”

“People go to bookstores often because they feel like there’s always someone to talk to...like a bartender,” Petrovato says. “In Cambridge, people are really nice—they know what they’re looking for, they’re pleasant to deal with.”

Although Petrovato favors the calm of Cambridge, he has already set his eyes on new locations, having recently opened a store on Boston’s Newbury Street. He says he would like to open a store every four or so years, if possible, and is contemplating a store in Greenwich Village in New York.

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