Harvard Book Store Turns 80

In 1640 in Cambridge, Mass., the Bay Psalm Book became the first book to be printed in British North America. Centuries later, and about 100 yards from the original site, the Harvard Book Store christened its newfangled print-on-demand machine by producing the Bay Psalm Book once more.

This and other unique stories line the pages of the Harvard Book Store’s memorable history. The shop marked its 80th anniversary Thursday night with a party attended by members of the local literary community.

With $300 borrowed from his parents, Mark S. Kramer founded the Harvard Book Store in 1932. Over the years, the business has changed hands and moved storefronts, but the integrity and charm of the independent bookstore—currently owned by Jeffrey Mayersohn ’73 and Linda Seamonson of Wellesley, Mass.—remain a constant.

The Harvard Book Store has left its mark on Cambridge: The corner of Mass. Ave and Plympton St. was designated in 2007 as “Frank, Mark, and Pauline Kramer Square”  in honor of the store’s founding family. Even more numerous are the store’s intangible influences on the hearts and minds of local bookworms.

Dozens of guests sat chatting with friends amid the scent of paperback books, while others strode through the shelves, balancing a glass of cider in one hand and a novel in the other. Guests included loyal customers, booksellers, and local authors such as Vittorio Palumbo, who said he attended the event to celebrate the store where his self-published book, “Italian Days, Arabian Nights,” is produced on the shop’s Espresso Book Machine.

Harvard Book Store marketing manager Rachel Cass worked the popcorn machine, filling the room with the sound of bursting kernels to complement the jazz music playing in the background. Cass, who has worked at the store for more than six years, said, “We have awesome customers and an awesome literary community, which is what keeps us alive and what makes it a fun place to work.”

At the party’s opening, a woman stood in the center of the crowded room to give a toast, thanking Mayersohn, Seamonson, and former owner Frank Kramer for their unwavering dedication to the bookstore she has frequented since her childhood. Following the speech, the guests joined together to sing “Happy Birthday” to their beloved shop.

“We have a very supportive community,” Mayersohn said. “People will always tell me that we’re so lucky to be located where we are, across the street from Harvard and in [a town] which really has a strong literary tradition.”

That the Harvard Book Store has remained a Cambridge landmark after 80 years is all the more impressive in an era in which many independent bookshops struggle to stay relevant among e-readers and large online booksellers.

Though a physical shop, the Harvard Book Store strives to stay ahead of the technological pack. Along with its high-tech on-demand printing machine, it was among the first independent bookstores to establish itself online and invest in new digital inventory systems.

Mayersohn noted, “This is a challenging time, and I think that the stores that survive will have to continuously innovate to figure out where they fit and how they can prosper in this very changing, very different world.”

Yet he remains optimistic: “I think that bookstores are such an important part of their community, not only in terms of the books that they sell, but also as a venue for the exchange of ideas.”

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