September 27, 2004

The Bookstores of Harvard: A Lament

Posted by Ed

University of Chicago students love to complain about the lack of good shopping in Hyde Park, the neighborhood where the university is located; this summer, Jacob Levy wrote an interesting post on "the stunning lack of commerce" in Hyde Park for the Volokh Conspiracy. But there's one area in which Hyde Park shopping is fantastic: books. The Seminary Co-op is easily the best academic bookstore I've ever seen, Powell's is an excellent used book store, 57th Street Books is better than the average Barnes and Noble, and there's even a Borders to go to if you're really desperate.

Until recently, I'd have ranked Harvard Square alongside Hyde Park as one of the country's premier neighboorhoods for book shopping, especially if you're interested in academic books. As recently as 20 years ago, the square was home to 15 bookstores, including a fantastic used bookstore and three other stores that would put most Borders to shame; now the total number of bookstores has nose-dived to three. What's more, at least two of the three remaining stores have a much worse selection than they used to, and one of them just declared bankruptcy. Now I find it a little depressing every time I visit the square. You'd think that the world's most famous university would be able to keep the Cambridge book business in good shape!

Unconvinced? Here are some more details:

  • The square's biggest and most prominent bookstore is the Harvard Coop, where most Harvard students buy their textbooks. The Coop has suffered the least from recent changes, I think; if I'm looking for a recent book on Russian history, the Coop is more likely to have it than any bookstore chain is, and the Seminary Co-op is the only non-used bookstore I can think of that I can definitively say is better. (I'm sure it helps to have a captive audience of student textbook buyers.)

    Even so, the store has still changed a lot. It's now managed by Barnes and Noble (though officially it's still the Coop), and the store changed for the worse after the takeover: supplies of Harvard merchandise became more prominent, and a big cafe was added to the second floor (taking up old bookspace.) Back when I was a freelance writer, I was always inclined to write an article about changes in store architecture that made things less convenient for shoppers, and the Harvard Coop was a case in point: the store's stairways were redesigned so that if you want to get from the first floor to the third, you have to walk through the second-floor fiction section or visit the new cafe. I find decisions like that really annoying, especially since it seems to be part of a trend whereby stores try to force their customers to look at more of their merchandise.

    As it is, the Harvard Coop is still a pretty good store (better with nonfiction than with fiction, I think.) I've occasionally had trouble finding a title I wanted (neither Sheldon Stern's Averting 'the Final Faillure' nor David Hoffmann's Stalinist Values was available when I checked last summer), but the store probably isn't dramatically worse from the way it was in the old days. It's the rest of the square that's suffered most.

  • The Harvard Bookstore--which, for the record, is completely unaffiliated with the university--used to be one of the best academic bookstores I know, probably second only to Chicago's Seminary Co-Op. It used to be that if I wanted a recent academic history book--the kind that's current, interesting, and reasonably prominent in the field, but unlikely to draw in a big general audience--I could almost always find it there. The browsing, moreover, was fantastic. I first discovered the works of Robert Darnton at the Harvard Bookstore, including titles that you often can't find at your average Barnes and Noble or Borders.

    The pickings are much slimmer at the Harvard Bookstore these days: the selection of academic books is far better than at most stores, but there are big gaps in what you'll find on the shelves. I haven't had a lot of time to browse, but the store has struck me as really inconsistent the two times I've been there this month: the section on historiography had some good stuff, but the selection of Soviet history books was lousy. (There were no books by my adviser on the shelf, even though she's one of the most prominent living historians of the Soviet Union; the Harvard Coop, meanwhile, had four of her books, and a local Barnes and Noble had five when I checked.)

    [Random thought of the day: do other grad students measure the quality of a bookstore's holdings by the number of titles by their adviser that it owns? This just might be a sign of the corrupting power of graduate school, which turns even the minor details of bookshopping into a weird little game of seeing which academics are succeeding in the broader marketplace of ideas.]

  • In the old days, Wordsworth was exactly the kind of bookstore that Borders should aspire to be. It wasn't the best place to look for the most obscure academic history books, but it was far better than your average neighborhood bookshop; instead, it offered a wide selection of titles for a more general audience. The selection was broad, fun, and interesting, and it offered shoppers a discount on each purchase. I'd say that it was better than any Barnes and Noble I've been to, and probably had a better selection that Chicago's 57th Street Books. I'm inclined to say that it was better than the current Harvard Coop, but I can't remember for sure.

    Wordsworth seemed to thrive for years. While I was in high school, Wordsworth expanded quite a bit in size: it took up two whole floors of its building and moved its children's section into a separate store down the street. Unfortunately, though, the good days couldn't last forever, and by last summer, the store had given up half its second-story floor space. This really hurt the store's selection: to name one example close to my heart, the Russian history section was scrapped and merged with the European history section, which was only a little larger than the Russian section used to be. It seemed that every time I came to Wordsworth, the selection was a little worse.

    The final blow only came recently. I stopped by Wordsworth today over lunch, and was shocked to see how sparse the store's shelves were; plenty of books had their front cover facing store customers, with the spine perpendicular to the shelf, so they could fill in all the space. I looked around on the way out and found a sign announcing that the store had declared bankruptcy. Wordsworth's owners hope to find investors and keep the store running, but they're in the midst of reorganization. The only bright spot for Wordsworth is the separate children's bookstore, which still seems to be thriving.

  • McIntyre and Moore, a used bookstore that was once arguably the best store on the square, has now moved to Somerville. It's fantastic if you happen to be in Davis Square, but it's two T stops away if you're hanging around Harvard.

These changes aren't limited to Boston or the book industry, of course. When I was a kid on visits to grandparents near Louisville, for example, my family was really impressed by the Hawley-Cooke bookstore chain; those stores declined a lot in quality over the years, however, and this newspaper article describes their purchase by Borders. Meanwhile, Harvard Square's landmark Out-of-Town News isn't doing so well now that people can read the Los Angeles Times, Le Monde, or Der Spiegel online.

What's led to these changes? I'm sure that the rise of and other online booksellers has played a big role--I once heard a Powell's manager telling a customer just how much business the store had lost to online retailers, and the same forces are undoubtedly hitting Harvard Square. I suspect that the rise of big chains like Borders has also hurt Wordsworth; 15 years ago, you had to head into town to get to a decent bookstore, but now the Boston suburbs are full of so-called "superstores" like Barnes and Noble. The Boston Globe published an article several years ago predicting that the Barnes and Noble takeover of the Coop would hurt Harvard Square in the end, and now the worst has come to pass.

I'm always a tad conflicted by the rise of these chains: I think it's great that the bad old shopping mall stores like Waldenbooks have now been wiped off the face of the earth, and that most any medium-sized city will now have a pretty good bookstore. It's quite possible that the book business is now better off, on average, if you factor in the situation across the country. (Should the worst come to pass, and I end up with a job at Eastern Idaho State University, I'll undoubtedly have better access to books than I would have had ten years ago.) But the best bookstores around, I think, often aren't as good as they used to be, and it's much harder to browse online or in a Borders than in a Seminary Co-Op or a Wordsworth.

The consequences of these changes are still subject to debate, of course. In the grand scheme of things, Harvard Square is still a good place to look for books, and maybe we're better off having the ability to order most of what we want online. Even so, I can't help but think that the rise of online book shopping and the decline of good independent bookstores sometimes makes books seem more like objects of commerce and less like inviting items to browse in and enjoy.

Posted by Ed at September 27, 2004 09:02 PM

Bookstore-browsing is certainly one of the things I miss about Chicago. Even the Borders here is inferior to some of those in downtown Chicago, some sections of which are actually quite fun to browse. I spent a while one day this summer looking through the "artist monograph" section with a couple of friends, where they had a number of nice books on Bosch and Bruegel and anyone else we felt like looking at.

The ascendance of chain bookstores definitely has both good and bad effects. You mention Louisville, where it's true that Hawley-Cooke was the place to buy books for a very long time. It's sad to see them replaced by Borders stores. (Carmichael's, the best remaining independent bookstore in Louisville, has a good selection for its size but is small.) On the other hand, Borders has opened a new downtown store, and I'm holding out hope that they'll open more stores in the south, west, and southwest parts of town, where the options remain limited mostly to Waldenbooks and B. Dalton's. There were a couple of independent bookstores in the southwest suburbs at various points when I was a kid, which my parents made a point of shopping at frequently, but none of them could compete with chains, or with Walmart, which is where all too many suburban and small-town Americans do their book shopping. If Borders can bring real bookstores to the parts of town that lack them, that might outweigh the loss of Hawley-Cooke as an independent store.

I went in a Barnes & Noble store with my parents while passing through Kansas on the way back from Colorado this summer. There they had a large display of cheap "Barnes & Noble editions" of a number of classic scholarly texts. I was impressed to find that even in approximately the middle of nowhere, there was an effort to sell things like Wittgenstein's Tractatus. I have to wonder how many people buy such things, but maybe the explosion of large chain bookstores will do something to improve the general level of education and literacy in suburban and rural areas. Or maybe that's an unreasonable hope.

On the two or three times I've wandered through the Harvard Coop (briefly; I've never spent more than about twenty minutes there), it didn't seem so different from any other fairly good Barnes & Noble to me. The Cornell campus bookstore is atrocious by comparison, though (although it does have lots of Cornell-branded merchandise [ugh] and art supplies [kind of cool]). There are a few moderately good used bookstores in "downtown" Ithaca, and one so-so independent store that amuses me with its prominent display of Edward Gorey titles near the entrance, but generally the book-shopping here is disappointing.

The sad thing about the general decline in bookstore quality is that few people seem to care. Whenever I complain to people about a book I can't find, I usually get a response along the lines of "Oh, I don't go to bookstores. I order what I need from Amazon." Maybe people just need training in how to enjoy the experience of browsing.

Well, I'm rambling a lot, probably because I'm avoiding doing some work I need to do tonight, so I should stop here.

Posted by: Matt at September 27, 2004 09:52 PM

Another chime-in on the "I miss the Coop" story:

Madison has gotten considerably worse in the one year I've been here. The university bookstore (privately run) just closed its second floor, a Barnes and Noble type room of general books. While I appreciated picking up a hardcover copy of Jimmy Corrigan at 40% off in their shrinking (?) sale, it doesn't make up for the fact that their entire non-course book selection is now crammed into the area that used to house just technical books (medical, math, science), a space considerably smaller than their UW apparel selection, which everyone knows that the place to buy a UW T-shirt is Steve and Barry's anyway, so give it up and let the academics have their space.

There was a used bookstore closer to the Capitol that I only visited once before it closed and can't comment on, and Canterbury books was an independent bookstore on State Street that closed recently. It didn't have a huge selection but had a nice atmosphere - Avol's, by far the best used bookstore in the area and a fine stand-in for Powell's, moved in as their old building is getting torn down, and they've made good use of the space. Paul's used bookstore is also decent, though maybe I just like the name. Also, I'm intrigued by the feminist bookstore, but haven't yet been curious enough to actually visit.

On the other hand, I'm not sure what I'd do without the Barnes and Noble in Fargo. Although I like to shop in Zandbroz downtown when possible (should you visit, stay for lunch and order the Uptown Chicago), they're more of a variety store and don't have a huge selection, and so whenever I go home I wind up visiting Barnes and Noble at least once, and it's infinitely better than a mall bookstore. Finally, as bad as Barnes and Noble may seem sometime, to me they do have a sizeable upside: browsing the bargain books for overstocked literary novels. $6 Mason and Dixon anyone? My personal all-time favorite find will always be the hard cover Pale Fire for $4.

Posted by: Paul at September 28, 2004 10:36 AM

I was weirdly amused by one sentence in your comment, Matt:

"Maybe people just need training in how to enjoy the experience of browsing."

For some reason that calls to mind images of a mandatory elementary school field trip to a bookstore or library, with a teacher who gives her students a warning like this: "You have two hours, kids! And when you come back, you all need to list 8 fun things you learned, or five nice passages that you enjoyed reading!" The idea of "training" people to browse just amuses me... :)

Sometimes I worry about how the University of Chicago book market will hold up over the next few years: I think (and hope!) that the University of Chicago is safe (again, having a captive market of student textbook-buyers will help a lot), but I worry about the situation anyway. (How healthy is 57th Street Books?) The Borders is new, after all, and it just launched a discount plan for U of C students and faculty this summer. I hope that's a sign that they haven't been able to make inroads among people associated with the university, but it could also be a step toward grabbing up more of the market.

I was also struck, this summer, by just how incompetent the Seminary Co-op's mail order system is. I tried to buy some books online to ship to my brother, and the system seemed slow, cumbersome, and annoying. (There was no gift option for an order, for example.) They ended up having to email me several times to get the order out, and though I'd rather order from them than through, my patience will be limited in the future. Will this hurt them in the long run? Maybe (god forbid!) I'll just need to buy books in person and ship them myself...

You also write that the Harvard Coop "didn't seem so different from any other fairly good Barnes & Noble to me." I think it's probably significantly better in a bunch of areas: to name a subject I know well, the Russian/Soviet history section is larger, better stocked, and much better in academic or academic-friendly books than most any chain is. (That is, the selection is bigger, and a lower percentage of it is filled with fluffy books on the Romanovs or sensational but mediocre books on Stalin's crimes.) My sense is that the fiction section is somewhat weaker, but still decent. (I was looking for a book by John Crowley the other day; they had "Little, Big" in stock, unlike 57th St. Books when I checked there this summer, but their selection was otherwise worse than in Hyde Park.)

The problem isn't that I expect every city to have a store as good as the Seminary Co-op, of course--that would be fantastic, but it's an unrealistic hope. The problem is that the upper end of the bookstore market is contracting. Now there are very few stores better than the Harvard Coop but worse than the Co-op. (The Harvard Bookstore, for example, has been going rapidly downhill...)

I started to write a rant about how much space the Harvard Coop gives up to its cafe and to displays of "noteworthy" books and bestsellers, but decided it wasn't worth the bother. Back to the microfilm...

Posted by: Ed at September 28, 2004 12:48 PM

I guess your perspective on Harvard Square bookstores inevitably depends on what you are comparing it to. Around Johns Hopkins here in Baltimore there are literally zero bookstores, if you don't count the university store. You have to seek out a Borders or Barnes and Noble. I don't mind these chains so much, but I agree that they are often lacking in the selection of academic titles. So this spring when I was doing research in Boston, I soaked up Harvard Square.

But a few weeks later, my research shifted to New York, which is replete with even better bookstores like the Strand and Labyrinth Books. You know what they say about the grass's greenness ...

Posted by: Caleb at September 28, 2004 05:35 PM


I don't disagree, and one of my doubts in writing this entry was that it would sound a little too extreme. I still think Harvard Square's a quite good place to shop for books, and I don't think that the prime criterion for judging a bookstore's quality is its selection of academic titles. (We can't expect very many communities to support a place like the old Harvard Bookstore.) Like any good history grad student, however, I was mainly trying to make a point about change over time: Harvard Square is a significantly less interesting place now than it was even 5 years ago.

Another small point: I think it's striking that of the three big Harvard Square bookstores, the one that's suffered most is the least specialized and academic--Wordsworth. The best bookstore, I think, isn't necessarily the one that sells the largest number of dull books on Soviet history, but the one that best balances the goals of selling specialized books to experts and more accessible books to a more general audience. That's where Wordsworth was most successful--and where I think that Borders and Barnes and Noble could often do a better job.

Posted by: Ed at September 28, 2004 09:00 PM

I agree, Ed. And I liked the post.

Posted by: Caleb at September 29, 2004 09:01 PM

*sigh* And now I'm nostalgic for the Hyde Park bookstores again. Downtown Rochester has a couple of OK academic bookstores, but the nearest city with a solid concentration of first-rate stores is Ithaca (a two-hour drive).

I've never had any enthusiasm for ordering directly through the Co-Op, and that's speaking as an ex-employee. But things arrive promptly if you buy in person & then just ask them to ship.

Posted by: Miriam at October 2, 2004 10:34 PM

Well, it's not just advisor's books, it's the ratio of books you've read (i.e. good books) to books you've never heard of (worthless filler).

I'm sorry to hear about Wordsworth; I got a lot of my gift-buying done there. Mac&Moore had the good grace not to move to Somerville until right before I moved away. How's Grolier doing?

Where I live now, it's a 2-hour drive to a real used bookstore.....

Posted by: Jonathan Dresner at October 4, 2004 05:06 AM

I don't know Grolier quite as well as the other stores, but a quick websearch suggests that it's closing too:

As far as I know, the other good speciality bookstore in the area--Shoenhof's, which sells books in other languages--is still doing at least semi-okay.

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