Tucked behind packed bookshelves in the Harvard Book Store sits a refrigerator-sized machine, reminiscent of a laser printer with an Industrial Revolution flair. This mechanical behemoth is Paige M. Gutenborg, the shop’s resident book-making machine.
Paige has been a member of the Harvard Book Store family since 2009. Current owner Jeff Mayersohn retired from a career in technology and purchased the Harvard Book Store in 2008 with his wife Linda Seamonson in fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Nine years ago, a weak economy and the growing popularity of digital content seemed to bode poorly for the future of print books and brick-and-mortar bookstores. Mayersohn, however, reached the “opposite conclusion.”
“I realized that the digitization of content would give us access to enormous inventory... provided we had a way of accessing that content and turning it into a book,” he says.
While in the process of buying the store, Mayersohn searched for a way to turn this vision into a reality. He discovered a machine produced by On Demand Books that fit the bill. On Demand Books, printing a company, manufactures the Espresso Book Machine, a device that prints and binds paperback books in minutes.
Recent developments have given the book machine access to a huge number of titles: Google recently digitized countless books in the public domain, and HarperCollins has made many recent titles available for printing in-store. Paige grants patrons access to many more titles than would be available otherwise, from classics to obscure texts from the early 20th century.
Spencer M. Hawkes, a young, bearded, beanie-clad man, oversees the book machine’s operation as the print-on-demand manager. Over the course of our conversation, he casually navigated what he deemed a “wonky looking” computer interface with ease. After a period of noisy productivity, a slim paperback volume slid out of a chute on the side of the machine. Hawkes is accustomed to this instant literary gratification: Paige prints between 1,000 and 1,200 books a month.
Hawkes has been managing Paige since 2015, and operates the machine deftly. He describes it as “two printers and then a fancy binding machine in the middle... relatively user friendly.” The “user friendly” characterization seems to be at odds with the mechanical jungle underneath the plexiglass of the machine. “If things need fixing, “ Hawkes admits, “then there is some sort of mechanical ability required.”
The ability to fix a machine like Paige is fairly rare, as she is one of only 60 in the world and 31 in the United States. Because most of these machines are owned by university libraries and university bookstores, even fewer on-demand book machines are available for the general public’s use.
Paige prints hundreds of books every week. About 60 percent of those are original, self-published works that are later sold in-store and on the Harvard Book Store’s website. Others are older titles that are now out of print. A shelf adjacent to the book machine labeled “Printed On Paige” displays a selection of these texts.
Of the original works printed by Paige, several have found commercial success within the bookstore. Others have been picked up by traditional publishers after an initial printing at Harvard Book Store. Hawkes insists that success, for the authors who print at Harvard Book Store, is “relative.”
“Some people say, ‘I just want [my book] to be available to the 30 or 40 people I think might buy it,” he says. “And [when] those people come in and buy copies, they’re happy with that.”
Some authors who have found success through traditional publishing also choose to print their work at Harvard Book Store. Kelly Link, who was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2016, created a collection called “3 Zombie Stories” to be printed on the machine.
Mayersohn says he didn’t anticipate the significant role that self-publishing would have in the book machine’s use, but he has taken it in stride. “Self publishing is not going away, and there’s a lot of amazing content being generated,” Mayersohn says. Still, he holds fast to his original vision.
“What I wanted was to be able to tell the world that no matter what book you want, if you come to the store [and] it’s not on our shelves, we’ll print it for you,” says Mayersohn. Though this dream hasn’t yet been fully realized, Paige continues to help budding authors see their work in print.