Harvard Book Store and Raven Used Books: A Tale of Two Bookstores | Arts


COVID-19 has ravaged the bookstore industry. As the city of Cambridge closed in late March, bookstore owners closed storefronts and faced tough choices with both foot traffic and vital income coming to a halt. Two local bookstores, Harvard Book Store and Raven Used Books, shine a light on the uncertainties and often crippling realities of two divergent approaches to combating the effects of the pandemic.

Alex W. Meriwether is the managing director of Harvard Book Store, an independent bookstore founded in 1932. In the past, Harvard Book Store has hosted more than 300 events each year, including author interviews, book signings, and a weekly Friday in store. Forum. Sometimes events could draw more than a thousand people to an auditorium. Now, however, the events have gone virtual and, as Meriwether noted, they’re “not quite the same” as before.

Harvard Book Store’s identity revolves around its reflection of the community. Located across Massachusetts Avenue from Harvard University’s Lamont Library, the Harvard Book Store community includes scholars, locals, and tourists. Supporting this community, the store offers a signature service, aptly named Paige M. Gutenborg: a print-on-demand machine, which allows scholars to obtain out-of-print titles, writers to self-publish or anyone to print literature. in the public domain.

Even though Harvard Book Store reopened in July and is operating under public health safety guidelines, much of the store’s operations have moved online. As Meriwether puts it, the management team pays “strong attention to e-commerce.” He recognizes that the in-person browsing and discovery experience is unparalleled, so the website design has evolved to look more like a bookshelf.

“This [the website design] reflects what makes browsing a bookstore, and our bookstore in particular, special,” Meriwether said.

Despite these efforts, “sales and revenues are down,” he said. He sees this new way of life for the bookstore lasting “perhaps for years to come”.

John Petrovato, the owner of Raven Used Books, has supported the pandemic in other ways. Petrovato first entered the bookstore industry at the age of 26, when he purchased and leafed through books while employed as a social worker. Over three decades of diligence and business savvy, Petrovato established and sold bookstores across New England, including the Portsmouth Book & Bar, which saw visitors like Bernie Sanders and Stephen King.

Today, Petrovato owns Raven Used Books, currently the only used bookstore in Harvard Square. With over 120,000 mostly unique books in stock, 15,000 books on display, and weekly sales of nearly 1,200 books, Raven Used Books is a specialty or out-of-print book collector’s paradise, offering books scholars with discounts as much as 80% off. Each week, the store buys, on average, a teacher’s entire collection of specialized books. According to Petrovato, even though the prime Harvard Square location stipulates high rent and a small floor space, there’s no place he’d rather be.

“Before Cambridge, we were in Amherst, where the [professors’] collections that we pick up once a week would be once every three months,” said Petrovato,

‘We couldn’t buy the book collections we do here in Cambridge anywhere else [in New England].”

Unlike Harvard Book Store, Petrovato has no plans to move to e-commerce. Currently, the Raven Used Book “online” site [business] is not too serious”; it’s more of a way to “make ends meet” since buying books online is “busier” than working 100+ hours each week. Petrovato already spends a lot of money cleaning and organizing the store. Already in early November, foot traffic was almost back to “normal business” levels. However, opening hours were more than halved, so total sales fell precipitously.

Over the past ten years, e-books have seen a huge boom in popularity and sales. However, Petrovato claimed that the e-books had “little impact on the bookstore’s business”. Indeed, for Salome J. Garnier ’22, who focuses on government and grew up loving books, e-books are “simply not the same” as their physical counterparts. She reasons that, especially now that people are spending so much of their working days online, e-books ” defeat their purpose ” because they keep the reader glued to the screen. She also thought the online shopping experience couldn’t be compared to a real bookstore. .

“In line [shopping] it’s good if you know what you’re looking for. But that’s no substitute for flipping through a book and seeing how you feel. I look for shorter books rather than longer books, and I can’t tell how thick a book is online,” Garnier said.

However, Garnier recognized the usefulness of online shopping, as it can avoid long lines and most risks of catching the virus by ordering online.

She summed up, “they [online and in-person shopping] are complementary. But nothing compares to seeing the books in person.

Bookstores remain hopeful of a resurgence in holiday shopping by individuals like Garnier. However, as Petrovato states, January and February tend to be the slowest months. In the past, Meriwether notes, Harvard Book Store relied on a big winter warehouse sale; this year, the pandemic made such an event impossible for security reasons. Regardless of whether the e-commerce lane overcomes the howling weather, as the winter season approaches, bookstores might struggle to feel the holiday cheer. There is only time to tell the fate of struggling bookstores.


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