The 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, the Harvard Bookstore is a hallmark. beloved of Harvard Square. The Harvard Crimson interviewed Harvard Bookstore Managing Director Alex Meriwether about holiday shopping, author events, and running an independent bookstore amid the pandemic.
Harvard Crimson: What is your role at Harvard Bookstore? And how has that changed with the COVID-19 pandemic?
Alex Meriwether: As the 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 the procedure, where to change roles and functions in the store. Since there has been so much change in the way we serve our community of book lovers and buyers, I do a lot with our marketing and outreach efforts, work with our Events and Marketing Manager on our newsletters and a bit of our social media.
THC: How different are bookstore operations now compared to when the pandemic first hit in March?
A M: We have certainly gone through different phases. As things started to move in March, we made the decision to close to the public. For a brief period we did the curbside pickup and then we just sent the mail. When things were at their peak in Massachusetts, we shut down operations on site altogether. Our staff were mostly remote and worked on making book recommendations. We had a forum on our website called “Ask a Bookseller” where customers would write to look for a book recommendation, and booksellers would send them a bunch of suggestions that they could order from our website. Orders arrived by us [and] were shipped directly to customers from wholesalers’ warehouses. We have increased our email marketing and social media during this time. It was a very different time when we weren’t an in-person bookstore.
Then [we] slowly receded in June. We have started to process store orders again, set up secure and social distancing workspaces in the store and have no customers just yet. Then at the beginning of July, we opened to the public again, with very limited hours and capacity. We continued with contactless curbside pickup and mailing of books. We are open with a lot of attention to safety: plexiglass barriers at the checkout and information desk and air purifiers around the store. We’ve kind of settled into this phase since then. In mid-October, when our dealings with the public largely didn’t seem to change, we launched a big campaign to encourage people to shop early for the holidays. We have published an open letter from our owners, which is still posted on our website, harvard.com, simply giving you an idea of the company’s financial situation. I mean, the income is going down.
Events are an integral part of our identity as a bookstore. We’ve run hundreds of author events a year, ranging from 15 people gathered in the bookstore to see a newbie author who could win the Pulitzer Prize in a few years, to a local author in the store, then 100 people coming. to see them, to hundreds of people at offsite events that are chargeable. We switched to Zoom virtual events in March, and they were a huge success. It was an honor to be named the Best Virtual Authors Series by Boston Magazine. Our events team did a wonderful job presenting the authors from their homes rather than doing it in the bookstore in front of the crowds. We’ve 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 started our holiday store early for the holiday initiative with a bang and with our annual sale, which we also moved earlier, generally they would have been [in early November] but we did it in mid October this year instead. We were blown away by the response to the letter and our sale. This is just the start of what we need to provide for ourselves and the staff, so we keep the message that we are not going to have a crowded and bustling bookstore the week before the holidays in December of this. year, so we need to extend this holiday shopping season over a few months rather than a few weeks.
We have always had a pretty solid web presence, paid attention to our email newsletter and our website which harvard.com a shopping experience [that reflects] shop in store as much as possible, but online sales are becoming a much more important part of the business than before. The other big operational change was in the works for mid-October, before the holidays we closed our used book sales basement to the public in order to expand our workspace for staff. [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 done? Whether it’s your approach to events, your approach to marketing and mailing lists that you can see the Harvard Bookstore implementing even after the pandemic is over and back to normal?
A M: The Boston Magazine Virtual Author Series article noted that there is something magical about making virtual events happen – it would almost always be someone from around the corner. But given the virtual nature of things, location is no longer a factor. It really opened up the possibilities for those we can get to join the authors in the conversation, to give more of that kind of live event dynamism that we fail to not have an audience and a speaker all in one. space. For example, critic Gail Caldwell, she has long been a literary critic for the Boston Globe. She had a memoir this spring and it was part of how important the women’s rights movement was to her and her life. We had Gloria Steinem as an interviewer, which was just amazing. The virtual interface opens who can connect to them. We have people all over the world turning into author events. We’ve heard from clients who moved years ago and missed our author events and were able to virtually attend them for the past seven months, which has been great. So I think that certainly suggests combining the virtual event with the live event more in the future, when it’s safe to have in-person events.
THC: Can you tell us a bit about how the Harvard bookstore community has changed or adapted?
A M: Overall, this is simply a shift from in-person purchases to in-person purchases. harvard.com, and it has affected both our customers and our staff. Before that, we had a main person dedicated to web order processing and we dedicated additional people during our annual sale for example. But now we have a whole team of staff both on site and staff working remotely from home, working on order fulfillment, doing the housekeeping and so much paperwork for them, picking up the books on site, packing them. I will say that everything seems so much less efficient than before.
When we redesigned our website many years ago, we did so with the idea that it mimicked part of the feel of shopping in the store. I am so grateful that we took this approach because we don’t want people to forget what is so special to discover and browse the shelves because it is a limited number of people who can. these days with our limited capacity and the limited ability of people, in some cases, to go to stores.
I think we just have to figure 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 way. We’re not guiding customers down the aisles the same way we used to, picking books off the shelves, hugging them, so we’re trying to find ways to do it in a more distanced way in the shops. months to come, especially with the holidays approaching.
THC: We talked about this sporadically throughout the interview, but how can the community best support independent bookstores right now?
A M: I just think I will continue shopping with them regularly. And understand that it will be long. It will be some time 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 as a bookseller in the store 16 years ago, and I’ve definitely had my fair share of recommending a book to someone and they’ll say, “Okay, thank you very much. I will go buy it on Amazon. So the sign that we put up in the store was, “find it here, buy it here, keep us here” – message just that the books you find in your local bookstore, are not going to buy [them] on Amazon because it’s like a dollar cheaper, especially if you found out through the thoughtfulness of your local bookseller. Continuous patronage serves and supports bookstores in the best possible way. And allow some delay and be patient sometimes, when it’s hard to be as efficient as we have been. Spending is on the rise, despite falling income, and it’s a struggle. But we’re still the smart, passionate people we’ve always been, ready to recommend books and put them in the hands of our customers, even if it’s virtually put in their hands.