Harvard Bookstore, a locally owned and operated independent bookstore just beyond the Courtyard Gates, has been open since 1932. Known for its author events, unique atmosphere and exciting book collection, Harvard Bookstore is a feature popular in Harvard Square. The Harvard Crimson interviewed Harvard Bookstore General Manager Alex Meriwether about holiday shopping, author events and running an independent bookstore amid the pandemic.
The Harvard Crimson: What is your role at Harvard Bookstore? And how has that changed with the COVID-19 pandemic?
Alex Meriwether: As Managing Director, I work on all aspects of running the business with the management team and our owners. [Responding to the pandemic] involved many decisions on where to change procedures, where to change roles and functions in the store. As there have been so many changes in the way we serve our community of book lovers and buyers, I do a lot with our marketing and outreach efforts, I work with our events and marketing manager on our newsletters and a little on our social networks.
THC: How different are bookstore operations now compared to when the pandemic first hit in March?
A M: We certainly went through different phases. As things started to move in March, we made the decision to close to the public. For a brief period we were doing curbside pickup and then just doing mail. When things were peaking in Massachusetts, we completely shut down on-site operations. Our staff were mostly aloof and working to make book recommendations. We had set up a forum on our website called “Ask a Bookseller” where customers wrote in looking for a book recommendation, and booksellers sent them a bunch of suggestions that they could order from our website. Orders go through us [and] were shipped directly to customers from wholesalers’ warehouses. We increased our email marketing and social media during this time. It was a very special time when we were not a bookstore in person.
Then [we] slowly receded in June. We have started fulfilling store orders again, implementing safe and socially distanced workspaces in the store and having no customers yet. Then in early July, we reopened to the public, with restricted hours and very limited capacity. We continued contactless curbside pickup and mailing of books. We are open with an emphasis on safety: plexiglass barriers at the checkout and information desk and air purifiers around the store. We’ve sort of settled into that phase since then. In mid-October, when our operations with the public hardly seemed to change, we began a major campaign to encourage people to shop early for the holidays. We published an open letter from our landlords, which is still posted on our website, harvard.com, simply giving you an idea of the company’s financial situation. I mean, revenues are down.
Events are an integral part of our identity as a bookstore. We’ve hosted hundreds of author events a year, ranging from 15 people gathering in the bookstore to see a first author who could win the Pulitzer Prize in a few years, to a local author in the store, and then 100 people coming to see them, to hundreds of people at paid off-site events. We moved to virtual Zoom events in March, and those were a big hit. It was an honor to be named the Best Virtual Author Series by Boston Magazine. Our events team did a wonderful job of showcasing authors from their homes rather than in the bookstore from the front of the crowd. We had a great turnout at these events, but it’s not the same experience as meeting an author and having them sign a book for you.
We kind of launched our holiday store early for the holiday initiative with a bang and with our annual sale, which we also moved earlier, they usually would have been [in early November] but we did it mid-October this year instead. We were blown away by the response to the letter and our sale. This is just the beginning of what we need to support ourselves and the staff, so we continue to get the message out that we are not going to have a crowded and busy bookshop the week before the holidays in December of this year, then we need to stretch this holiday shopping season over a few months rather than a few weeks.
We’ve always had a pretty strong web presence, we’ve paid attention to our email newsletter and website, which makes harvard.com shopping experience [that reflects] shop in-store as much as possible, but online sales are becoming a much bigger part of the business than before. The other huge operational change was in the pipeline for mid-October, before the holidays we closed our used book basement to the public to expand our workspace for staff to [have] socially distanced workstations to collect and prepare online orders, which has just been critical given the massive influx of online orders in recent weeks.
THC: Are there any advantages or advantages to the programming you have created? Whether it’s your approach to events, your approach to marketing, and mailing lists that you can see Harvard Bookstore implementing even after the pandemic is over and things are back to normal?
A M: The Boston Magazine Virtual Author Series editor noted that there’s something magical about hosting virtual events: For event series, we often pair a speaker with a reporter or reputable academic or someone else working in that person’s field, and it would almost always be someone local. But given the virtual nature of things, location is no longer a factor. It’s really opened up the possibilities of who we can bring in to join the authors in the conversation, to give more of that kind of live event vibrancy that we miss not having an audience and a speaker all together in the same space. For example, critic Gail Caldwell, she was a long-time book critic for the Boston Globe. She had a memoir this spring and part of it touched on the importance of the women’s rights movement to her and her life. We had Gloria Steinem as an interviewer, which was just amazing. The virtual interface opens who can tune them. We have people all over the world turning to our author events. We’ve heard from clients who moved years ago who missed our author events and have been able to attend virtually for the past seven months, which has been great. So I think that definitely indicates maybe combining the virtual event more with the live event in the future when it’s safe to have in-person events.
THC: Can you talk a bit about how the Harvard bookstore community has changed or adapted?
A M: Overall, it’s just a matter of moving away from in-person shopping and shopping at harvard.com, and this has affected both our customers and our staff. Before that, we had a main person dedicated to processing web orders and we dedicate additional people when we had our annual sale for example. But we now have a whole team of on-site employees and employees working remotely from home to process orders, do the in-house processing and so much paperwork for them, do on-site pick up of books, pack them up. I will say that everything seems so much less efficient than it once was.
When we redesigned our website many years ago, we did so with the idea that it mimicked part of the shopping experience in the store. I’m so grateful that we took this approach because we don’t want people to forget what’s so special about discovery and shelf browsing, because it’s a limited number of people who are able to do it these days with our limited capacity and the limited ability of people, in some cases, to get to stores.
I just think about figuring out how to do what we do best, which is recommending books, serving our customers, [and] reflect the interests of our community with a selection of books on our shelves in a socially distant manner. We’re no longer leading customers down the aisles the way we used to, taking books off the shelf, hugging them, so we’re trying to find ways to do that in a more distanced way in the coming months, especially with the holidays approaching.
THC: We’ve talked about this genre sporadically throughout the interview, but how can the community best support independent bookstores right now?
A M: I just plan on continuing to shop with them regularly. And understand that it will be long. It will be a while before stores return to where it is safe and prudent to be the kind of community gathering places that have made bookstores special.
I started out as a bookseller in the store 16 years ago, and I’ve definitely had my fair share of book recommendations to someone and they’ll say, “Okay, thank you very much. I’m going to buy it on Amazon. So the sign we had in the store was: “find it here, buy it here, keep us here” – just a message that the books you discover in your local bookstore, don’t go buy [them] on Amazon because it’s like a dollar cheaper, especially if you discovered it through the thoughtfulness of your local bookseller. Ongoing patronage serves and supports bookstores in the best possible way. And allow for a few delays and be patient sometimes, when it’s hard to be as efficient as before. Expenses are up, despite falling revenues, and it’s a struggle. But we’re still the smart, passionate people we’ve always been, willing to recommend books and get them into our customers’ hands, even if it’s virtually putting them into their hands.