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Specialty Bookstores: Stories from the Square

By Michelle B. Timmerman and Xi Yu, Crimson Staff Writers

To find book offerings in Cambridge beyond the standard inventory of the Coop, it helps to peruse the city’s streets and read between the buildings.

Specialty bookstores carrying anything from used rare books to travel maps are overlooked but not underloved, subtly settling into the landscape of Harvard Square over the years.

In addition to the stories on their shelves, these bookstores’ histories are tales of their own.

BETTER WITH AGE

Raven Used Books on JFK Street very nearly wasn’t Raven Used Books at all.

“Originally we were thinking of calling it something ridiculous like Acme Books and Posters...but that would have been funny for about a week, and then it would get old,” says John C. Petrovato, the store’s owner.

But influenced by his former business partner’s love for birds and a classic literary enthusiast’s affection for Poe, Petrovato gave the name Raven Used Books to his first bookstore in Northampton nearly 20 years ago. Since then, Petrovato has opened a store in Amherst and, about five years ago, another in Cambridge.

The decision to do business in Cambridge was a provident one—Raven Used Books houses approximately 15,000 books and sells 5,000 books per month.

“There are probably less than 10 places in the country that could do what I do in Cambridge,” says Petrovato, who contends that Raven’s strongest section, philosophy, is perhaps one of the top 10 collections in the country.

As the owner of a used bookstore, Petrovato has a different outlook on the true selling point of a book.

“I don’t fetishize about books in the same way other people do; for me, the book is really about the content. It’s not really about the first edition,” he says.

Even popular philosophy books—not textbooks—fall on the cheap side. A philosophy book with a retail price of $200 may sell for $50, and very few books will sell over that price, according to Petrovato.

The Cambridge clientele is also refreshing for Petrovato, who had been accosted by New Age fanatics at locations in Western Mass. and informed that he had had a “violent birth” and “needed to be channeled.”

“People go to bookstores often because they feel like there’s always someone to talk to...like a bartender,” Petrovato says. “In Cambridge, people are really nice—they know what they’re looking for, they’re pleasant to deal with.”

Although Petrovato favors the calm of Cambridge, he has already set his eyes on new locations, having recently opened a store on Boston’s Newbury Street. He says he would like to open a store every four or so years, if possible, and is contemplating a store in Greenwich Village in New York.

GLOBETROTTERS

Behind the nighttime glow of its glass windows, the Globe Corner Bookstore at 90 Mount Auburn Street awaits curious travelers.

Enter Patrick and Harriet Carrier, the quiet couple who share their passion for travel through guide books and maps. Their dog happily greets customers from time to time as well.

Originally a subsidiary of The Boston Globe, the Globe Corner Bookstore’s first incarnation was in downtown Boston in 1982, Patrick Carrier says. At that time, the quaint shop specialized in books about New England and was a featured stop on the Freedom Trail.

After seizing several opportunities to expand through the years, the Carriers decided to broaden their inventory to general travel books, and by the time they moved to Harvard Square in 1988, the store’s name was coincidentally appropriate.

“I take great delight in people finding interesting and obscure books on our shelf,” Patrick Carrier says. “There’s a tremendous amount of effort that we [put] into it, and it only works if interesting customers come in and find interesting things.”

Harriet Carrier, who spends more of her time with the customers, recalls an 80-year-old man who once came looking for maps of straits in South America to plan for a trip as a member of the working crew of a three-masted sailboat.

“We’re very fortunate to be in an area where so many of our customers have very broad interests and very diverse travel plans,” she says.

And the bookstore aims to engage actively with the traveling community, hiring a staff of experienced travelers and hosting a travel blog as well.

“It’s nice to be a part of people learning about different parts of the world,” Harriet says. “It’s just a small part of increased world understanding.”

A FOREIGN AFFAIR

The largest foreign language bookstore in the United States in both content and square footage, Schoenhof’s Foreign Books claims eager Harvard language students, eccentric expatriates, cultured intellectuals, and former First Lady Laura Bush among its patrons. With over 454 languages in stock and an enviable lot rented from the Spee Club next door, it’s difficult to imagine that Schoenhof’s is itself an immigrant to Cambridge.

Schoenhof’s Foreign Books first opened in downtown Boston in 1856, when a market-savvy German immigrant recognized a demand for French and German books. The business transferred ownership internally several times within the next 80 years. Poor management and the 1930s financial crisis booted the store out of Boston and forced it to move to its current location on Mount Auburn Street in Cambridge.

A move made out of financial desperation turned out to be a blessing.

“There’s no other place now in this area, in New England—probably in the country—that we’d be able to survive, especially given the challenges independent bookstores face nowadays,” Schoenhof’s General Director Daniel Eastman says.

Although the bookstore was founded by a German family, French books have since become Schoenhof’s predominant source of revenue. “The latest, hottest French novel” is always the most popular item in store, Eastman says, especially if it has recently been translated into English.

Eastman notes that people who learn French are more likely to continue reading French books than are students of other languages and that French tourists or French expats seem to be more interested in continuing to read in French than people from other European countries. He also describes Boston as “hugely francophilic.”

Schoenhof’s interaction with the French community doesn’t end with its most frequent book transactions. In 1978, a large French publishing conglomerate took over the business, after which things took a turn for the worse. On the verge of bankruptcy in 2005, Schoenhof’s was again sold to a private family.

Only now, as Schoenhof’s debt begins to subside, has business stabilized enough to allow for considerations of the bookstore’s interior improvement.

“As you can see, it looks like hell,” says Eastman, pointing at the carpet and bookshelves surrounding him. “The store needs to have more of an ambience, to create more enthusiasm—to facilitate that concept about being excited about having access to the opportunity to explore the world a little bit through literature.”

'LABOR OF LOVE'

Ifeanyi A. Menkiti, born in Nigeria and now a professor of philosophy at Wellesley, is the owner of the oft-overlooked Grolier Poetry Book Shop, nestled behind the more prominent Harvard Bookstore.

Grolier, which opened in 1927, has struggled through several major financial difficulties throughout the years. Its second owner had just announced the shop’s closing in 2006 when Menkiti made the decision to rescue it.

“It was more like a labor of love,” Menkiti says. “If you had money to invest, the last thing you really wanted to do was put it into a bookstore.”

Menkiti, who can sometimes be spotted walking slowly down Plympton Street with a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee in hand, relies on his work at Wellesley to support his store. He is the first owner of Grolier to hire vendors to man the shop, he says, and his wife also stops by in the mornings to check on the shop.

Grolier often invites guest speakers for poetry readings and recitations—events that Menkiti says “encourage a meeting of world poets and world voices.”

Menkiti is himself a poet, writing about political history such as President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and South African activist Nelson Mandela’s life story.

“There’s so much that poets can do so we can accelerate the voices together,” Menkiti says. “That’s what got a crazy old man with the bookstore, when everyone is running away from it.”

Menkiti says he wants to stick with his little poetry shop, regardless of the difficulties of keeping it financially afloat.

“I know nothing about retail. I’m still trying to support this store,” Menkiti says. “I know there’s a lot of goodwill—people want this place to succeed so they can join this journey.”

—Staff writer Michelle B. Timmerman can be reached at mtimmerman@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Xi Yu can be reached at xyu@college.harvard.edu.

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