There are as many different ways to go to a bookstore as there are to read a book. Some people like to browse, others to skim. Some go shopping with one book to buy, others leave any store with at least four books they hadn't known they wanted to read. With more than 25 bookstores in 10 blocks, Harvard Square has a bookstore for every type of shopper.
Harvard Book Store (1256 Mass. Ave.) is the best for browsing. It has a wide selection of just-released hardcovers and new paperbacks. The strongest stock is in women's studies, black studies and sociology. And its used books--it has an entire floor downstairs--are a plus. It usually has some of the most frequently used textbooks for half-price or less, and a lot of good fiction for less than a dollar a book.
Harvard Book Store is in a great location, right across the street from the Yard, and is open until 11 p.m. every day. And from 7 p.m. until closing, it's a great place to people-watch.
The best thing about Harvard Book Store is that everyone there loves books. Most of the customers seem to browse for hours, and the people who work there can answer almost any question--if they don't have something you are looking for, they will tell you where to go. Unfortunately, that happens sort of a lot.
They usually tell you to go to Wordsworth (30 Brattle St.) And, actually, if you are looking for something specific, that's your best bet. It's cheaper, and there is a good selection. The store itself is sort of confusing--books are kept in sections that don't always make sense--but it is computerized, so just ask for help.
The women's studies section is better than Harvard Book Store's, and Wordsworth has an amazing children's section. But the atmosphere is hectic, crowded and not at all conducive to hanging out. But the store will usually have what you are looking for, so you don't have to stay forever if you can't bear the crowds.
The Harvard Coop (1400 Mass. Ave.) makes that claim as well, and many readers believe it. But the only claim The Coop can really make is that it is the biggest book store in the Square.
Since most of that is textbooks, and a lot of the rest is coffee table and children's books, there is surprisingly little left in the way of good reading. If you are looking for basic literature, the Coop has it, and one advantage is that you can charge it, but even the fiction selection can be beaten at several of the other stores.
The biggest disappointment by far, however, is that the psychology, sociology and black studies sections are full of pop books and near-to-devoid of scholarly work. The Coop, for example, is the one bookstore in the Square that stocks a lot of copies of Dianetics.
For a wide-selection of both pop--only a little--and serious work in sociology--particularly in women's studies, black studies socialism/communism and Third World countries--try Revolution Books (14-B Eliot St.).
The store will either repel you or draw you in. Some people won't buy books there, others spend hours looking at the books and talking to the employees. It's true, they make no pretense of their politics and if you don't see them in the store, you might see them in the Square selling the bi-weekly Workers' Vanguard.
Anyway, if it doesn't have the book you are looking for, Revolution will probably have six or seven related ones that you somehow end up buying. The stock is large, but unreliable. While Revolution has a wide variety of books, if you see something you want there on Monday, buy it--it may well not be in stock by Wednesday.
While Harvard Book Store, The Coop and Wordsworth are the most convenient and well-stocked stores in the Square, many of the others might be more your style, and on a too-hot day in July, moving from store to air-conditioned store is not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
Penguin Books (1100 Mass. Ave.) is a little far away, but you can't spend a summer in Cambridge without going to Central Square, and this is on the way. It is an amazing sight, even if you don't buy a thing.
Every book carried is a Penguin book, and the store carry almost every one. Indeed, it claims to have every Penguin title, although one reporter went in looking for a translation of Theocritus, and Penguin didn't have it.