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Consumer Research Center Brings Bookshop and Cultural Critique to CCVA

By Rebecca H. Dolan

Even students who find themselves sprinting down Quincy Street one minute before Harvard Time on the way to lab will notice the giant, concrete structure that whips by their peripheral vision. But to many, the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts is little more than that—a funky-looking spectacle. In an effort to engage a wider audience, CCVA launched Consumer Research Center/bookshop, which sits atop the hulking spiral walkway.

The CRC/bookshop is the Carpenter Center’s first endeavor as part of its Consumer Research Center/ initiative, which explores the relationship between consumer products and contemporary culture. The store is a collaboration between the CCVA and Motto Books, an international distributor based in Switzerland. CRC/ will experiment with the space—across from the Sert Gallery, overlooking the terrace on Quincy Street—in order to both exercise and reflect on consumer practices in cultural contexts. Future plans for CRC/ include a farmer’s market, a design boutique, and a coffee bar.

Simply as a book retailer in and of itself, CRC/bookshop aims to be useful to the area. “Motto is a bookshop that fills a void in Cambridge and Boston, from my observations,” says James Voorhies, director of the Carpenter Center. “We’ll be able to introduce people to an amazing amount of cultural production in contemporary art and writing and film and architecture and design that we don’t have very good access to here.”

This shop will serve as Motto’s first semi-permanent outpost in the United States. Motto specializes in smaller and self-published titles, and the merchandise on display reflects its eccentric curation. In a short span, one shelf, features both “Sleep Cures Sleepiness” and “Mazdaznan Health & Breath Culture.” The zany quality of these titles is exactly what CRC/bookshop embodies and hopes to contribute. “They carry a lot of titles that we, for example, don’t have in the art museum,” says David R. Odo, director of student programs and research curator of university collections initiatives at the Harvard Art Museums. “It’s really terrific for those of us who are interested in contemporary art, and I think it’s a great opportunity for students to come in and see what’s happening.”

According to Voorhies, the value of CRC/bookshop for students is twofold. In addition to being a concentrated site of commerce, the store also aims to serve as a critical reflection on consumer practices. More specifically, CRC/ hopes to encourage a closer examination of the increasingly frequent 21th century practice of hybridizing economic and cultural activities. The mainstream concepts of bookshop/coffee bar, bookshop/film screening, and design studio/coffee bar are examples of this phenomenon that likely sound familiar. CRC/bookshop itself will be hosting a number of events, using books as a departure point for its programming. “It’s part of an approach by this institution to think about how to build audiences and how to respond to consumer habits today,” Voorhies says.

The bookshop brings up numerous questions about contemporary retail practices. “To what extent is it really just a bookshop, and to what extent is it a comment on consumer culture?” Odo says. The initiative hopes to spark meaningful reflection: How difficult is it to walk into a bookstore without interacting with anyone? What do customers take away from these interactions? How does the public have particular stake in the types of commerce that also blend with culture?

These questions are difficult to answer, but the CRC/ team hopes that a walk around CRC/bookshop will help jump-start some critical thinking. “It’s really wonderful to have the space activated again in this way,” Odo says. “Different voices, different kinds of insight—not just seeing the art itself but thinking about different kinds of critique—is great for the students to have access to.”

—Staff writer Rebecca H. Dolan can be reached at

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