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Weathering the Storm

Competition from the Internet forces bookstores to redefine their importance

Caroline M. Trusty

The stereo inside Harvard Book Store on Mass. Ave. is softly playing a live version of “Cowgirl in the Sand” by Neil Young. I’m chatting with the cashiers about what it’s like to work at a bookstore. “It’s wonderful—if for nothing else but the employee discount,” says a man with curly peppered hair, smiling satisfaction, presumably thinking about the bounty of books he comes home to every night. “Being surrounded at work with things I love—what more can I ask?”

Right outside, there’s an older married couple pointing and talking in low tones about the books on display in the window. I introduce myself and make acquaintance with Phil and Sue Millholland, who tell me they’re tourists from the San Francisco area. “We always come to Harvard Book Store when we’re in the neighborhood,” Phil Millholland says. “We love browsing here.” I’m an unabashed bookstore partisan, so I ask what attracts them to the habit. “I like tactile things,” Sue Millholland says. “And intimate places,” her husband adds.

I smile ruefully and nod in agreement. It’s easy to be pessimistic about the future of such delights in Harvard Square. Just this past summer, Globe Corner Bookstore and Curious George Goes to Wordsworth—both longstanding Harvard Square mainstays—closed their storefronts. Among other bookstores in the community that have closed recently are Lame Duck Books, which dealt rare and antiquarian books on Arrow Street for 25 years, and McIntyre & Moore Booksellers, which was located in Porter Square after moving from Harvard Square due to rising rent. It is not necessarily an ill that these stores are disappearing—they are simply being outmoded by more efficient technologies. While it makes sense that Harvard Square bookstore employee Kelly J. Cooper should say “It hurts so bad!” to hear about the steadily declining number of bookstores in Harvard Square, why do I agree? Are we just old fashioned and biased against change? Or is there something unsentimental in bookstores that is worth preserving?

RECOMMENDED FOR YOU

Walk into Grolier Poetry Book Shop on Plympton Street and you’ll find yourself in an unchanged 1927 interior. When Louisa Solano, Grolier’s second owner, was looking to sell the store in 2006, she required that the new owners maintain the old layout and function of Grolier completely. The store is a small, square room, and there’s barely any space to walk. The shelves reach the ceiling and overflow with volumes of poems, arranged by country of origin. Bells ring every time the door opens. When I enter, Carol Menkiti, the owner’s wife, asks me what I’m looking for. I say that I don’t know much about poetry.

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“We get that a lot,” Menkiti says. “People come in and ask ‘Can you recommend something?’ Or, ‘I like this poet, could you recommend someone similar that I might like?’ And I try my best. Sometimes they ask who my favorite poet is.” The only staff member other than Menkiti and her husband Ifeany Menkiti—who is a philosophy professor at Wellesley College and a recognized poet himself—is Elizabeth Doran, the book buyer. They all double as human equivalents of Amazon’s “Recommended for You” feature.

As Menkiti talks about the history of Grolier—there’s a scrapbook in a corner of the store with newspaper clippings and photos—a customer walks in and beelines for the register to ask about a Scottish poet. Menkiti looks him up on the computer. “We only have one book by him. Do you recommend him? Should we stock more of his work?”

“I haven’t read him yet, but I’ve heard good things,” the man replies. Menkiti makes a note of it and they part ways cordially. “The people that come in are very interesting. Most of them are very enthusiastic about poetry,” Menkiti says.

COMIC NIGHTLIFE

The bookstores that still exist around Harvard rely on this symbiotic, interactive relationship between patron and store. The Million Year Picnic is a comic book store tucked into a basement space across the street from Peet’s Coffee & Tea. It’s cramped like Grolier, due in part to the criss-crossing big and small pipes that cover the ceiling. The owner of the store, Tony F. Davis ’84, is standing behind the counter. “Hey there, Joe,” Davis says. He is addressing a man in a jacket and dress pants. Joe, a longtime regular, is holding a briefcase and two A4 serial comic books, and he looks to be in his late forties. “This is the best place in the country to buy the type of things they carry,” says Joe.

Tony reaches his hand over the counter and shakes Joe’s hand affectionately.

The Million Year Picnic, which opened in Harvard Square in March 1974, is one of the oldest remaining comic book stores. The whole time I’m talking to Tony, another regular—a real-life version of the stereotypical comic-book nerd—stands around, chirping in about old Harvard Square and all its glory. They go through a short set of commercial obituaries: 24-hour eatery Tasty Sandwich Shop, Cambridge Booksmith, and WordsWorth Bookstore. He and Tony often finish each other’s sentences; each supplies names of stores when the other forgets.

The Million Year Picnic has come to rely on this dependable group of regular clientele as walk-in traffic has decreased. Davis recalls a time when Harvard Square was alive with shoppers and ramblers until late at night. “People would come to Harvard Square to go media shopping—records, books, and videos—in a two-block area, which included Million Year Picnic.” This variety of stores would bring foot traffic, causing people who didn’t know about the store to see the window display at ground level and come in for a look. Now, Davis says, the Square is inundated with service-oriented stores: nail and hair salons, restaurants, and banks. “Because these places have set hours, and usually close around 6 p.m., the streets become dead after dark.”

THE JABBERING HUB

It’s not only lack of neighboring stores that is causing problems for bookstores in Harvard Square. “People sometimes come in the store and browse, find something they like and go online to buy it,” says Heather Gain, marketing manager of Harvard Book Store. “We’re currently doing a campaign—you can see the big signs at the window of the store by the entrance—‘Find it here, buy it here, keep us here.’ We want to really send out the message before the situation gets too dire.” Online companies with warehouse storage spaces can offer cheaper prices, driving sales away from local bookstores.

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