Book Smart

How one bookstore beat the odds

hbsPhoto courtesy of Frank Kramer

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arvard Square is famous for a lot of things. It’s home to the oldest university in America. George Washington took command of the Continental Army here. In the 19th century, Harvard Square a center of abolitionist fervor. In the 20th century it was famous for anti-war protests. One thing that has been true through all of these periods is the connection between Harvard Square and books. Nearly from the beginning, authors, poets, publishers, printers, and sellers of books have been fixtures of the square.

Three hundred and seventy one years ago, the first printing press in this hemisphere was carried across the Atlantic with the first American printer, Stephen Daye. Where did he set up shop? In Harvard Square, of course. When Governor John Winthrop crossed the Atlantic on the Arbella, one of his shipmates was Anne Bradstreet, who would later become a Harvard Square resident and the first published American poet. The Daye Press was replaced by the University Press and Bradstreet was followed by such giants of 19th- and 20th-century American poetry as Longfellow, Lowell, T.S. Eliot, and e. e. cummings. They all lived through, and loved, the books of Harvard Square.

One thing has been changing in the square, however. Harvard Square at its peak boasted more bookstores per capita. Many are now gone. But one, the Harvard Book Store, continues operating after almost 80 years.

The business was founded in 1932 by a Dorchester native, Mark Kramer, who borrowed $300 from his Russian immigrant parents to open a small shop selling used books on Boylston Street (now JFK Street). A few years later, he met the woman who would become his wife, Pauline, while she was at the Harvard Summer School. Together they built the bookstore from a meager beginning to a successful dealer in used books and remainders, with a particularly lively trade in used textbooks.

Their son, Frank, grew up with book-dealer parents, but had no intention of going into the business himself. He graduated from Lexington High School and went to Boston University, where he majored in philosophy. He had an idea that he might go to law school, until, in his senior year, his father died suddenly.

Shocked and unprepared, Frank Kramer, at the age of 20, took over the bookstore. The store had grown, moved to Massachusetts Ave (in a third of its present space), and had spun off branches near Tufts and Northeastern. Helped and tutored by the store’s five dedicated employees, Kramer did his best to run the Harvard Square store while his mother ran the other two.

The world of book dealers into which Frank Kramer stepped in 1962 was very different from today’s. The “paperback revolution” had just begun. Suddenly paperbacks were no longer just pulp fiction. They were a means for publishers to release thousands of back titles and older books that were no longer selling well in hardcover. This influx of cheaper books started to change the way people thought about books and bookstores. About the same time, two other important changes happened: A few bookstores started growing into chains, and the first shopping malls opened. Within 10 years, there were malls seemingly in every suburb, and every one of them had a Walden Books or a B. Dalton Bookstore.

These changes hurt independent book sellers, although their impact was less pronounced in Harvard Square. “Harvard Square was the Mecca for bookstores,” Kramer says. There were more than 20 in just a few few blocks—so many they had their own map—each with knowledgeable staffs and some kind of a niche market. This kept the chains away, and for a while made bookstores a pastime. Cantabrigians and visitors spent Friday or Saturday nights browsing and buying.

Meanwhile, Frank Kramer was learning the ropes and mastering his most important skill: to innovate and change with the times. In 1965 a large space behind the Harvard Book Store opened up, giving it space to open a separate store on Plympton Street, the Law School Annex, catering to law students. Kramer renovated the Massachusetts Avenue store, opening up the basement and balcony and expanding from 400 square feet of retail space to 2,000.

The expansion continued. In 1971, Kramer took over the storefront on the corner of Plympton and Mass. Ave. to sell new books. In 1974 he opened a location on Newbury Street that catered to the New England School of Law. The store on Newbury Street closed in 1980 and then reopened as the second bookstore café in New England. But this was not just a coffee-and-cookies kind of café: It had a full-service menu, and Jasper White was the chef. In the same year, Harvard Book Store swallowed up a third storefront on Mass. Ave., which was eventually merged into the store as it exists today.

But there were new challenges facing the bookstores of Harvard Square. The 1970 riots kept some customers away, while the extension of the Red Line to Alewife made the square a years-long traffic nightmare. When it was finally completed in 1984, the people who had taken buses into Harvard Square to transfer to the Red Line now just drove to Alewife and no longer had to stop. Then, in 1995, another threat: Amazon.com opened for business.

All of these things caused many of the other Harvard Square booksellers to close. Their numbers dropped rapidly. Perhaps most memorably, Wordsworth shut down in 2004. Through all of it, the Harvard Book Store innovated and adapted. It teamed up with other independent booksellers nationwide to form the Independent Book Consortium. Kramer co-founded of Cambridge Local First, which promotes unique, independently owned businesses.

He’s also kept his sense of humor. At a recent meeting, he recounted a joke circulating among publishers that the second book off the Gutenberg press predicted the death of the printing press. He also commented that booksellers are passionate about what they do, and aren’t giving up on the experience of being in a bookstore and handling real books.

Kramer sold the Harvard Book Store last year, but took the time to find a buyer who would continue the traditions he and his parents started. “I’m most proud of having survived through innovation,” he says, “while still being respected as a good traditional bookstore.”

One of the last ones standing.

Gavin Kleespies is director of the Cambridge Historical Society.

2 Responses to Book Smart

  1. Pingback: Smart Aleck - MySecretBoston

  2. oldergent371 Reply

    January 1, 2015 at 6:40 pm

    We are an elderly Australian couple who in 2015 will make our 10th trip to Boston, visiting family. Every trip we make a pilgrimage to Harvard Square. Our ritual includes lunch at the Grafton Street Restaurant & a visit to Harvard Book Store, surely among the world’s greatest book shops. It is a good place to lighten one’s wallet. The atmosphere is wonderful.

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