COVID-19 has ravaged the bookstore industry. As the city of Cambridge was closed at the end of March, bookstore owners closed their windows and faced tough choices with both foot traffic and the abrupt halt in vital income. Two local bookstores, Harvard Book Store and Raven Used Books, highlight the uncertainties and often crippling realities of two divergent approaches to tackling 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, the Harvard Book Store hosted more than 300 events each year, including author interviews, autographs and a weekly Friday in store. Forum. Sometimes events may have drawn more than a thousand people into an auditorium. Now, however, events have gone virtual and, as Meriwether noted, are “not quite the same” as before.
The identity of Harvard Book Store revolves around its reflection of the community. Located across Massachusetts Avenue from Harvard University’s Lamont Library, the Harvard Bookstore community includes academics, locals, and tourists. Supporting this community, the store offers a signing service, aptly named Paige M. Gutenborg: a print-on-demand machine, which allows academics to get out of print titles, writers to self-publish or anyone to print literature in the public domain.
Even though the Harvard Book Store reopened in July and operates under public health safety guidelines, much of the store’s operations have moved online. As Meriwether puts it, the management team pays “great attention to e-commerce”. He recognizes that the in-person browsing and discovery experience is unprecedented, 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, ”said Meriwether.
Despite these efforts, “sales and revenues are down,” he said. He sees this new bookstore way of life lasting “maybe for years to come”.
John Petrovato, the owner of Raven Used Books, has taken responsibility for the pandemic in other ways. Petrovato first entered the bookstore industry at the age of 26, when he bought and leafed through books while working as a social worker. Through three decades of diligence and business acumen, Petrovato has established and sold bookstores across New England, including the Portsmouth Book & Bar, which has welcomed visitors like Bernie Sanders and Stephen King.
Today, Petrovato owns Raven Used Books, currently the only used bookstore in Harvard Square. With more than 120,000 mostly unique books in stock, 15,000 books on display and a weekly turnover of nearly 1,200 books, Raven Used Books is a specialist or out-of-print 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 a high rent and a small floor space, there’s nowhere he’d rather be.
“Before Cambridge, we were in Amherst, where the [professors’] the collections that we collect once a week would be once every three months, ”said Petrovato,
“We would not be able to buy the book collections that we are doing here in Cambridge elsewhere [in New England]. “
Unlike Harvard Book Store, Petrovato has no plans to switch to e-commerce. Currently, Raven Used Book “online [business] is not too serious ”; it’s more of a way to ‘make ends meet’ since buying books online is ‘busier’ than the more than 100 hours of work per week Petrovato already spends deep cleaning and organizing the store. Also, at the beginning of November, pedestrian traffic had almost returned to “normal business” levels. However, opening hours were cut by more than half, so total sales fell sharply.
Over the past decade, e-books have seen a huge boost in popularity and sales. However, Petrovato said the e-books have had “little impact on the bookstore’s business.” Indeed, for Salome J. Garnier ’22, who focuses in government and grew up loving books, e-books are “just not the same” as their physical counterparts. She explains that, especially now that people spend so much of their work day online, e-books “defeat the lens” because they keep the reader glued to the screen. She also believed that the online shopping experience couldn’t compare to a real bookstore. .
“In line [shopping] it’s good if you know what you’re looking for. But that doesn’t replace flipping through a book and seeing what it feels like. I’m looking for shorter books rather than longer books, and I can’t comment on how thick a book is online, ”Garnier said.
However, Garnier recognized the usefulness of shopping online because it can avoid long queues and most of the risks of catching the virus when ordering online.
She summed up: “they [online and in-person shopping] are complementary. But nothing compares to seeing the books in person.
Bookstores are hoping for a resurgence in holiday shopping by individuals like Garnier. However, as Petrovato claims, January and February tend to be the slowest months. In the past, Meriwether notes, the Harvard Bookstore relied on a large winter warehouse sale; this year, the pandemic made such an event impossible given security concerns. Whether or not the e-commerce route gets over the howling weather or not, as the winter season approaches, bookstores might struggle to feel the joy of the holidays. There is only time to tell the fate of the struggling bookstores.