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Rule Britannica

In the future everyone will have leather-bound sets

Two hundred twenty-five years ago, Encyclopaedia Britannica published its first edition. Shortly afterwards, Joseph Connors opened a display at the Coop.

Tucked in a corner on the first floor of the Coop's book building, Connors and his Encyclopaedia Britannica display await fact-grubbing customers. The former history teacher has been inviting curious onlookers to sit down and talk reference books for more than thirteen years.

"I like it very much," Connors says of his job. He says he takes pride in running the nation's only permanent Encyclopaedia Britannica display in a bookstore. On the job, Connors gets the opportunity to meet celebrities, business leaders and heads of state--and sell them encyclopedia sets.

"Whoopi Goldberg bought a set," recalls Connors. After coming to Harvard to receive the Hasty Pudding Club's Woman of the Year award, Goldberg stopped by the Coop and noticed the display. "She said, `Oh, Britannica! I wanted to get one for a long time,'" and Connors made the sale.

Among Connors' other famous customers is the late Samuel Doe, once dictator of Liberia who has since been overthrown and killed. During the Gulf War, the brother of the king of Saudi Arabia stayed at the Charles Hotel and visited the Coop dressed in his regal Arabian robes. "He asked if I [could] have a set shipped to him by Friday," says Connors. Normally, shipment would take two to three weeks but the Saudi prince needed it for his granddaughter's birthday. "I said, 'Yes, Your Highness, if you'll pay for the freight." And he did.

A basic Britannica set runs for $1,500, but most people buy the leather bound edition, which is $100 more. Britannica also markets hand-tooled leather editions that run as high as $10,000. "I've only sold a few of those," concedes Connors.

Foreigners are responsible for many of the Britannica sales at the Coop. The encyclopedia is world-famous, but is less accessible in other parts of the world. This year, Connors says he has sold 12 sets to German tourists and shipped sets to Turkey, Bangladesh and Mexico. He averages four to five sales per week and works strictly on commission.

Connors plans to stay at the Coop for at least another five years. He has converted his corner display into a working office complete with his own private phone line. After 13 years, Connors has grown used to the Coop and vice versa. Sitting up in his chair, Connors says, "When people think of Britannica, they think of me at the Harvard Coop."

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